At least nine people died after being crammed into a sweltering tractor-trailer found parked outside a Walmart in the midsummer Texas heat, authorities said Sunday in what they described as an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone wrong.
The driver, James Mathew Bradley Jr., 60, of Clearwater, was arrested, and nearly 20 others rescued from the rig were hospitalized in dire condition, many with extreme dehydration and heatstroke, officials said.
“We’re looking at a human-trafficking crime,” said San Antonio Police Chief William McManus. He called it “a horrific tragedy.”
Authorities were called to the San Antonio parking lot late Saturday night or early Sunday and found eight dead inside the truck. A ninth victim died at the hospital, said Liz Johnson, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The victims “were very hot to the touch. So these people were in this trailer without any signs of any type of water,” Fire Chief Charles Hood said.
Authorities would not say whether the trailer was locked when they arrived, but they said it had no working air conditioning.
It was just the latest smuggling-by-truck operation to end in tragedy. In one of the worst cases on record in the U.S., 19 immigrants locked inside a stifling rig died in Victoria, Texas, in 2003.
Based on initial interviews with survivors of the weekend tragedy, more than 100 people may have been packed into the back of the 18-wheeler at one point in its journey, ICE acting Director Thomas Homan said.
Thirty-nine were inside when rescuers arrived, and the rest were believed to have escaped or hitched rides to their next destination, officials said.