The bodies of eight people believed to be undocumented immigrants were found inside a trailer at a Walmart in San Antonio on Sunday after air conditioning inside the truck failed in the sweltering heat, police said. More than two dozen other victims were hospitalized, some with life-threatening injuries. Authorities are calling it a “human trafficking case” and were tipped off by an alert Walmart employee.
Thirty people were hospitalized, and two of those victims later died, bringing the death toll to 10, authorities said.
The driver of the truck, identified as James Bradley Jr., was detained at the scene. Federal investigators, including the Department of Homeland Security and ICE, are investigating along with the local police.
“San Antonio firefighters and police responded to a horrific scene this morning on the southwest side of town. They discovered an alien smuggling venture gone horribly wrong. Eight immigrants were found dead. At least twenty more were in serious condition. All were victims of ruthless human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of their fragile cargo,” said Richard Durbin, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, in a statement.
The driver and any other suspects could face both state and federal charges, authorities said. Bradley is believed to be from Florida and is 60.
“The South Texas heat is punishing this time of year. These people were helpless in the hands of their transporters,” Durbin said. “Imagine their suffering, trapped in a stifling trailer in 100-plus degree heat. The driver is in custody and will be charged. We will work with the Homeland Security Investigations and the local responders to identify those who were responsible for this tragedy.”
San Antonio Fire Department officials said 30 other victims were found inside the semi-trailer and were taken to the hospital, KENS-TV reports. Of those victims, 17 were transported with life-threatening injuries and 13 had injuries or illness that was not immediately life-threatening.
The fire department said in a statement they were called to the parking lot of the Walmart at 8358 IH-35 South about 12:30 a.m. Sunday after a report of “multiple people in the trailer portion of an 18 wheeler. First arriving units found a number of people in the back of this trailer all in varying degrees of medical distress.”
The victims were taken to local hospitals by helicopter, ambulances and a mobile mass casualty transportation vehicle, the fire department said.
Temperatures on Saturday reached 101, and were in the 90s in the hours before the bodies were found, authorities said.
“Late last night we got a call from a Walmart employee to conduct a welfare check on a tractor trailer that was parked in the lot here. He was approached by someone from that truck who was asking for water,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said at a press conference. “He came back with the water, called the police, we arrived on the scene and found 8 people dead in the back of the trailer. … Checking the video from the store we found that there were a number of vehicles that came in and picked up a lot of folks who were inside that trailer that survived the trip.”
McManus said they are looking at a “human trafficking crime here this evening.”
McManus said homicide investigators will be working with federal authorities to investigate the case. He said the victims include “some juveniles,” along with adults in their 20s and 30s.
The survivors were taken to at least seven area hospitals.
“Our paramedics and firefighters found that each one of them had heart-rates over about 130 beats-per-minute, which again they were very hot to the touch,” Fire Chief Charles Hood said. “These people were in that trailer without any signs of any type of water, so you are looking at a lot of heat stroke, lot of dehydration. As Chief McManus mentioned, we do have at least two school-aged children.”
Hood said they were “very fortunate” that there were not 38 people “who were all locked inside the vehicle who were dead.”
He called it “very sad.”
McManus said they are investigating where the trailer came from. The driver has been taken into custody. He said they do not know exactly when the truck got to the Walmart parking lot.
“We are assuming that it probably hasn’t been there too long, prior to the police being called, because an individual who had gotten out of the back of that truck approached the employee,” McManus said.
McManus said it seems the driver, or someone, let the person who sought help out of the truck.
Hood said it was a mass casualty incident.
“We treated it kind of like you would an airline crash or other major incident,” Hood told reporters. “Each one of those persons has a number and a tag, we’re going to have to reconcile who they are and their sexes and all of those things.”
Police were searching areas around the Walmart on Sunday to look for anyone who ran from the truck.
“Some went into the woods, we’re going to have to do that search again in the morning, when we have some light,” McManus said.
According to McManus, the victims “will be investigated by ICE” after they are treated.
“The driver and whomever else we find in this will be facing state and federal charges,” McManus said. He said they are trying to figure out who owns the truck.
“The truck was loaded with people,” Hood said. He told CNN, “Unfortunately, some of them were severely overheated, and that was a refrigerated truck with no refrigeration. 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.”
He said the heat stroke or other heat injuries could cause permanent brain damage.
McManus said, “this is not an isolated incident. This happens quite frequently. If you see something like this happening, and you can see that it happens late at night, under darkness, because they don’t want to be discovered obviously, but anybody who sees anything like this, people being transferred out of a back of a trailer or being transferred to some vehicle from another, they need to call (911).”