At least 9 people are dead after a phone call from a Walmart employee led to the discovery of dozens of undocumented immigrants severely injured in the back of a tractor-trailer in Texas early Sunday, according to federal authorities.
More than 100 undocumented immigrants may have been sandwiched in the back of the 18-wheeler during the journey, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting Director Thomas Homan said, citing initial interviews with survivors.
“Checking the video from the store, we found there were a number of vehicles that came in and picked up a lot of the folks that were in that trailer that survived the trip,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said. “We are looking at a human trafficking crime here.”
The employee told authorities the trailer was parked at a Walmart lot in San Antonio. A man who was in it asked the employee for water.
The employee brought water for the man, then called police and asked them to conduct a welfare check, McManus said.
That’s when authorities discovered eight bodies and 31 people suffering from various injuries, authorities said. A ninth victim later died at a hospital, ICE officials said.
“We quickly called a ‘mass casualty incident’ and had about 29 units arrive out there and start transporting people,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said.
“With heat strokes or heat injuries, a lot of them are going to have some irreversible brain damage.”
A heatstroke can cause swelling of the brain and other vital organs, possibly causing permanent damage, if a person’s body temperature isn’t quickly lowered, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Officials said the air conditioner in the trailer was not working. And the high temperature in San Antonio on Saturday was 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).
“Unfortunately, some of them were severely overheated, and that was a refrigerated truck with no refrigeration,” Hood said. “So the inside of the truck was just austere condition that nobody was going to survive in it. So we were very fortunate that they were found.”
Two of the people hospitalized are 15 years old, the fire spokesman said.
Feds join the investigation
Authorities don’t know where the trailer is from or how long it was parked at Walmart, but they are reviewing surveillance video.
Police also searched the area with helicopters after some people ran into the woods.
The US Attorney’s Office said the driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., 60, of Clearwater, Florida, was being held in connection with the incident, authorities said. Prosecutors plan to file a criminal complaint against Bradley in federal court on Monday morning.
“The driver and whoever else we find is involved in this will be facing state and federal charges,” McManus said.
“Fortunately, we came across this one and fortunately there are people who survived but this happens all the time,” he said. “You can see that it happens late at night under darkness because they don’t want to be discovered.”
Once the victims undergo treatment, the case will be turned over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the police chief said.
Homan deplored the discovery as the latest major case of human smuggling in the United States.