A phone call from a Walmart employee led to the discovery of eight bodies and 30 people severely injured in the back of a tractor-trailer in Texas early Sunday, authorities said.
“We are looking at a human-trafficking crime here,” said San Antonio Police Chief William McManus.
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 made the gruesome discovery: eight bodies and 30 people suffering from various injuries, said fire department spokesman Joe Arrington. He said 17 of those are in critical condition and 13 are in serious condition.
“We quickly called a ‘mass casualty incident’ and had about 29 units arrive out there and start transporting people,” said San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood. “With heat strokes or heat injuries, a lot of them are going to have some irreversible brain damage.”
The air conditioner in the trailer was not working, officials said. 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 because, if they would have spent another night in that environment, we would have 38 people who would not have survived.”
Two of the 30 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 were also searching the area with helicopters after some people ran into the woods.
The driver was arrested, but police did not provide any information on him.
“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. 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.
ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan deplored the discovery as the latest major case of human smuggling in the United States.
“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,” Homan said in a statement.
He said, in fiscal year 2016, Homeland Security Investigations launched 2,110 human smuggling investigations, which resulted in 1,522 criminal convictions.
During that same year, he said, HSI made 2,734 criminal arrests and 3,007 administrative arrests related to human smuggling operations.
In Sunday’s case, “these people were helpless in the hands of their transporters,” said Richard L. Durbin Jr., US attorney for the Western District of Texas. “All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo.”
US Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat who represents parts of San Antonio, called for reform.
“Horrific scene overnight in San Antonio where a human smuggling attempt turned deadly,” Doggett tweeted. “Prosecute smugglers, pray for survivors and the victims’ families, stop the hysteria, reform our broken immigration system.”
Walmart: Some of the incident was on camera
The store captured some of the incident on camera but declined to describe or release any of the footage to CNN, said Walmart corporate spokesman Nathan Barr.
“(T)his is an ongoing law enforcement investigation. We are cooperating fully with the authorities but will not be providing interviews or footage to media,” Barr told CNN in an email. “We are in the process of reviewing that video with law enforcement but won’t be commenting on it.”
Barr also declined to identify the employee who asked police to conduct a welfare check on the truck.
“I wish I could be more helpful, but we can’t interfere with the investigation,” he said.