Police in San Antonio found eight people dead and 20 severely injured inside a tractor trailer in a Wal-Mart parking lot early Sunday morning in an incident local officials described as a “horrific” human trafficking tragedy.
Late Saturday night, someone from the 18-wheeler approached a store employee in the parking lot to ask for water, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said at a news conference. After coming back with water, the employee called police, who found eight dead bodies in the back of the trailer.
At least 38 people were found in and around the truck in the parking lot off Interstate 35 in San Antonio, about 150 miles from the . Eight were pronounced dead at the scene and are believed to have suffered from heat exposure and asphyxiation, police spokeswoman Romana Lopez said.
Seventeen of the vehicle’s occupants were rushed to hospitals with life-threatening injuries. Another 13 had non-life-threatening injuries. At least two of the occupants were school-age children.
“All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo,” U.S. Attorney Richard L. Durbin, Jr., said in a statement. “The South Texas heat is punishing this time of year. These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters. Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer in 100-plus degree heat.”
Temperatures in San Antonio climbed to a sweltering 100 degrees on Saturday, according to the . The truck did not appear to have air conditioning or water on board, said San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood.
“It was a mass casualty situation for us,” Chief Hood said. “Each one of them had heart rates over about 130 beats per minute. They were very hot to the touch…. You’re looking at a lot of heat stroke, a lot of dehydration.”
The driver, whose identity has not been revealed, was taken into custody and will face state and federal charges, McManus said.
San Antonio Police Department’s homicide department will work with the Department of Homeland Security “to determine the origin of this horrific tragedy,” he added.
Surveillance video from the store showed that, before police arrived on the scene, several vehicles approached the truck to pick up many of the truck’s survivors, McManus said.
Some of the trailer’s occupants escaped into the woods, and McManus said his officers would search the area Sunday on foot and by helicopter.
“This is not an isolated incident,” he said. “This happens quite frequently. Fortunately, we came across this one. Fortunately, you know, there are people who survived.”
In May 2003, 19 people died after they were abandoned in a trailer truck at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas. The driver in that case, Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, was convicted and is serving a sentence of nearly 34 years.
“By any standard, the horrific crime uncovered last night ranks as a stark reminder of why human smuggling networks must be pursued, caught and punished,” Acting Director Thomas Homan said in a statement. “These networks have repeatedly shown a reckless disregard for those they smuggle.”
In fiscal year 2016, Homeland Security Investigations initiated 2,110 human smuggling investigations, which resulted in 1,522 criminal convictions, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman said.
“So long as I lead ICE, there will be an unwavering commitment to use law enforcement assets to put an end to these practices,” Homan said.
Jarvie is a special correspondent.
11:45 a.m.: This story has been updated throughout with Times reporting.
5:50 a.m.: Updated to report 20 people were in critical or serious condition.
4:15 a.m.: This article was updated with background on a 2003 case.
3:55 a.m.: Updated with Saturday’s temperature.
3:25 a.m.: Updated with the driver’s arrest.
This article was first published at 2:50 a.m.