SAN ANTONIO: US police on Tuesday were investigating the grim discovery of about 50 bodies in and around a trailer truck abandoned in sweltering heat near the Texas city of San Antonio, with victims identified as from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
The shocking finding was one of the worst disasters involving migrants in the United States in recent years — and came five years after a similar deadly incident in the same Texas city, a few hours from the Mexican border.
The White House — facing intense pressure over its immigration policies — called the tragedy “absolutely horrific and heartbreaking”, and said President Joe Biden, flying to a Nato summit in Madrid, has been briefed on the incident.
San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told reporters that at least 46 victims had died and 16 people had been transported to the hospital alive and conscious — 12 adults and four children.
White House calls tragedy ‘absolutely horrific and heartbreaking’
Early Tuesday, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the toll had reached 50, mostly from Latin American nations including Mexico.
“It’s a tremendous misfortune... so far there are 50 dead: 22 from Mexico, seven from Guatemala, two from Honduras and 19 still without information about their nationality,” the Mexican leader said at a morning press conference.
US officials said three people were in custody over the incident.
Hood, the fire chief, said survivors had suffered heat stroke and heat exhaustion, and that there were no signs of water in the truck.
“It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer but there was no visible working A/C unit on that rig,” Hood said.
San Antonio, which lies about 250 kilometers from the border, is a major transit route for people smugglers.
It has also been gripped by a record-breaking heat wave, and temperatures in the area hit 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.5 degrees Celsius) on Monday.
The US Customs and Border Protection agency director, Chris Magnus, said he was “horrified” at the deaths near San Antonio.
“This speaks to the desperation of migrants who would put their lives in the hands of callous human smugglers who show no regard for human life,” he added on Twitter.
The vehicle was found near Highway I-35, a major US artery that stretches to the Mexican border.
According to San Antonio police chief William McManus, authorities were first alerted by an emergency call at about 5:50pm local time (2250GMT).
“A man who works in one of the buildings up here behind me heard a cry for help,” he told reporters.
“(He) came out to investigate, found a trailer with the doors partially open, opened them up to take a look, and found a number of deceased individuals inside.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who advocates a tough line on immigration, quickly hit out at Biden over the disaster — blaming the Democrat’s “deadly open border policies”. “These deaths are on Biden,” Abbott tweeted.
“They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.” San Antonio was the site of a similar migrant tragedy in 2017, when 10 people suffocated to death in a sweltering trailer with broken air conditioning and clogged ventilation holes.
The truck driver later pleaded guilty to charges related to the deaths.
In Geneva, the United Nations’ human rights office said it was “deeply disturbed” by the incident.
“This is not the first such tragedy, and it illustrates again the critical need for regular safe pathways for migration as well as for accountability for those persons whose conduct has directly led to such loss of life,” said spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2022