At least nine people have died in central Texas after dozens of people were discovered crammed into a sweltering trailer parked in a San Antonio Walmart parking lot in what investigators are saying is the result of human trafficking.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said Sunday morning that police became aware of the situation early Sunday when a person staying in the trailer approached a Walmart employee asking for water. That employee later contacted police over the weird exchange.
"We're looking at a human-trafficking crime," McManus said Sunday, calling the incident a "horrible tragedy."
ABC News reports that when authorities arrived on scene, they discovered nearly 40 people in the trailer. Eight of the deceased had already passed, according to San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood, while 20 others were in "extremely critical condition or very serious condition." The rest of those in the trailer were suffering from dehydration and heat-related illnesses.
"They were very hot to the touch. So these people were in this trailer without any signs of any type of water," Hood said. "It was a mass casualty situation for us."
According to the Associated Press, the Department of Homeland Security has taken the lead in the investigation. Reports also indicate that as many as 100 people were crammed into the trailer at one point, but many of them either escaped or found other means of transportation, authorities said.
Investigators said the people were confined in the trailer with no air conditioning or water. To make matters worse, it's extremely hot in mid-July in San Antonio. Temperatures reached north of 100 degrees over the weekend.
Police have arrested one person in the incident — 60-year-old James Mathew Bradley Jr. of Clearwater, Florida — though it's not immediately clear if charged have been filed against him.
The origins of the trailer are also not clear, though it had Iowa license plates. Police did not say whether the trailer had traveled from Mexico, though some of the occupants told police they were Mexicans.
Thomas Homan, acting director of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, said: "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."
U.S. Attorney Richard Durbin added, according to ABC News: "All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo. 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."
More from the AP:
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.
In the May 2003 case, the immigrants were being taken from South Texas to Houston. Prosecutors said the driver heard them begging and screaming for their lives but refused to free them. The driver was sentenced to nearly 34 years in prison.
The Border Patrol has reported at least four truck seizures this month in and around Laredo, Texas. On July 7, agents found 72 people crammed into a truck with no means of escape, the agency said. They were from Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala and El Salvador.
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