SAN ANTONIO – More than 50 migrants died after they were left in a tractor-trailer on a Southwest Side road — a “horrific human tragedy” that’s being called the largest mass casualty event in San Antonio history, authorities said.
A spokesperson for Bexar County said Wednesday morning that the death toll has risen to 53 people.
The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed that 48 people died at the scene on Monday. Three patients taken to Baptist Hospital, one patient taken to Texas Vista Medical Center, and one patient taken to Christus Santa Rosa were later pronounced dead, spokespersons told KSAT as of Wednesday morning.
Several others remained hospitalized with heat-related illnesses after they were abandoned in the sweltering heat on Monday.
Rescuers said the patients were hot to the touch and “too weak” to move on their own.
Francisco Garduño, chief of Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, said Wednesday that the truck was carrying 67 migrants who traveled from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
It’s the latest tragedy that’s claimed the lives of migrants as they seek refuge in the United States after crossing the border from Mexico. As of Thursday morning, here’s what we know so far.
WATCH: Mexican officials release new details about human smuggling tragedy
Adults found dead in trailer with no A/C, no water
At 5:50 p.m. Monday, a nearby worker heard a cry for help from a trailer in the 9600 block of Quintana Road and went to investigate.
With the doors partially open, the worker saw the deceased people inside the trailer and called for help, according to San Antonio Police Chief William McManus.
San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood said 46 adults were found dead in and around the trailer, and it appeared they suffered from heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office released an update on Wednesday, saying 48 people died at the scene. Five other people died after arriving at the area hospitals.
Forty of the victims were male and 13 were female, the office said. Officials had potential identifications on 37 of the victims as of Wednesday.
The office has contacted Travis and Dallas counties for assistance in the autopsies. The victims’ causes of death and names have not been released by the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Some of the victims may include teens, but authorities said it’s too early to determine their ages.
The refrigerated tractor-trailer appeared to have no working air conditioning and had no water available inside, Hood said. It is unclear how long the people were inside the trailer.
The people who did survive were hot to the touch and “too weak” to let themselves out, Hood said.
16 people were taken to hospitals
First responders with SAFD sent 16 people to area hospitals, including 12 adults and four pediatric patients, between 6:07 p.m. and 6:57 p.m. Monday, according to Hood.
All of the patients were conscious at the time of transport, Hood said. They were suffering from heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
“So a mass casualty with triage involved, it went very smoothly and very quickly,” Hood said on Monday night. “It is our hope and prayer that the conditions of those that were transported will improve as we speak.”
Baptist Hospital received five patients, and three succumbed to their injuries, a spokesperson said Tuesday morning. The other two patients at Baptist remain in critical condition.
Texas Vista Medical Center received two adult patients, a 23-year-old woman and a 32-year-old man. One of those patients has since passed away, a spokesperson said Wednesday morning.
A spokesperson for Christus Santa Rosa said Wednesday that one patient sent to its Westover Hills location died. Christus is still caring for two patients at Westover Hills and one patient at the Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. Their conditions are being kept confidential.
A University Health System spokesperson said Tuesday that their team was caring for two patients at University Hospital, a 23-year-old woman who is in serious condition and a boy in critical condition.
“We are heartbroken at the loss of life discovered in a tractor-trailer (Monday) evening, and grateful to all who responded to this horrific scene to try to save lives,” the spokesperson said.
Methodist Hospital Metropolitan received two male patients and one female patient. They were all in critical but stable condition on Tuesday.
Rubén Minutti, the Mexico consul general in San Antonio, said those in critical condition were suffering from injuries like brain damage and heat stroke.
4 people are currently in custody.
McManus said that three people were detained on Monday night. A fourth person was detained on Tuesday in East Texas.
Those four suspects have been identified as Homero Zamorano, Christian Martinez, Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez.
Zamorano, 45, was identified as the driver in public charging documents. He is charged with one count of smuggling illegal immigrants resulting in death — a charge that carries a potential penalty of life in prison or the death penalty.
Department of Justice officials said he hid in some brush on Monday and tried to blend in with migrants to avoid apprehension.
Zamorano is originally from Brownsville, but lives in Pasadena, according to DOJ officials.
A Texas Department of Public Safety Criminal History search shows Zamorano has arrests dating back to 1995. His convictions range from misdemeanor marijuana charges to felony charges of burglary of a habitation and reckless injury to an elderly person.
Martinez, 28, was taken into custody Tuesday in Palestine on one count of conspiracy to transport illegal immigrants, resulting in death.
Authorities said they discovered Martinez and Zamorano were discussing the smuggling event. Martinez will be brought to San Antonio.
D’Luna-Bilbao and D’Luna-Mendez are each charged with possession of a weapon while being in the United States illegally, charging documents state.
They were taken into custody after they were traced to a home in the 100 block of Arnold Drive by the Texas license plate on the semi-truck.
So far, they are in federal custody but haven’t been charged in relation to Monday’s smuggling operation.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told the Associated Press that it appeared Zamorano left the truck on the road because it had mechanical problems.
Big rig traveled from Laredo
Garduño said Wednesday that among the dead were 27 people from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador.
Their destination is unclear but Mexican authorities and Rep. Henry Cuellar said it appeared they boarded the rig in or near Laredo.
Surveillance photos from border checkpoints showed that the truck, with Zamorano as the driver, passed checkpoints in Encinal and Cotulla.
The truck had a fake Department of Transportation number that was registered in Alamo, Texas. The plates were registered to a San Antonio address.
South Texas has long been the busiest area for illegal border crossings. Migrants ride in vehicles through Border Patrol checkpoints to San Antonio, the closest major city, from which point they disperse across the United States.
Big rigs emerged as a popular smuggling method in the early 1990s amid a surge in U.S. border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal crossings.
Before that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded border. As crossing became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., migrants were led through more perilous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more to be transported.
First responders say victims covered in seasoning, ‘basically cooking’
Hood told ABC News’ Matt Gutman that it appeared the migrants were covered in some type of meat tenderizer seasoning to mask their smell in an effort to confuse dogs who are trained to smell for humans at Border Patrol checkpoints.
“The smell for me and a lot of us will be meat tenderizer because somehow that was used to mask the smell of humans or things like that,” unless the trailer was used to haul seasoning, he said.
Dr. David Miramontes, the medical director for SAFD, and Bryn Everitt, an associate medical director with the SAFD, also recalled to Gutman the “horrific scene” they arrived at.
The victims, they said, were basically “cooking.” The survivors were close to death and needed immediate attention or else they would have died.
“They will die. We talk about it all the time. We talk about patients in hot cars, about kids. And these are just the same thing. These patients will die if they don’t get treated appropriately, quickly,” he said. “I can’t imagine what those people went through in that trailer. It’s unbelievable.”
Sheriff asks Biden for more resources
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Tuesday requesting more resources and a meeting.
KSAT obtained a copy of that letter in which the sheriff asks for more assistance in fighting those that “profit off the misery of smuggling victims.”
The sheriff said the president’s inaction in helping with the humanitarian crisis at the border has resulted in what he calls Gov. Greg Abbott making the issue “one big campaign stunt.” In his letter, Salazar was also highly critical of what he called the governor’s ineffective tactics at the border.
Tractor-trailer reportedly not correctly registered
The Post said Texas records showed the numbers were registered to a man in Alamo, in Hidalgo County.
The man’s son said the registration corresponds with a Volvo that has been hauling grain in another part of Texas and insisted they were innocent victims.
Details revealed in dispatch calls
A dispatch call from Broadcastify.com revealed that communication between the first responders and the San Antonio Fire Department started around 5:50 p.m. Monday.
“Got an 18-wheeler, looks to be about 60 people that are inside. Looks like quite a few of them are already deceased,” said one of the first responders on the scene. “We’re gonna start sorting through the ones that are currently breathing. None of them are able to talk as of yet, but we do have a lot of snoring respirations. I can count at least 10 that are that have snoring respirations.”
All the patients were listed as priority one, a first responder said, also requesting more backboards and medics.
“I’m counting right now about 12 that are breathing. We are trying to attempt to take the ones that are breathing off of the truck right now,” the emergency responder stated.
Largest mass casualty event in San Antonio
McManus called this the largest mass casualty event in the city that he can recall.
In July 2017, eight migrants were found dead after being trapped inside a truck that was parked at a Walmart at Interstate 35 and Palo Alto Road, not far from Quintana Road. Another two people died at the hospital.
Investigators previously said that as many as 100-200 people may have been in the trailer at one time.
The driver, James Matthew Bradley Jr., was sentenced to life in prison the following year after he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport aliens resulting in death and one count of transporting aliens resulting in death.
Hood said that the trailer from Monday did not have holes for air like the one in 2017.
In May 2003, 19 migrants were found dead in an unrefrigerated dairy truck left in Victoria. Temperatures surpassed 170 degrees inside the trailer.
The driver, Tyrone Williams, was convicted of conspiring with others to transport and harbor illegal aliens for commercial advantage and financial gain. He was sentenced to 34 years in prison without the possibility of parole.
In a news conference on Tuesday, Wolff and Clay-Flores slammed Abbott, a Republican, for his stance on border control.
Wolff said funds should be used to help immigrants and better communicate with border states in Mexico.
“The state of Texas has done everything wrong that I can think of,” Wolff said.
Clay-Flores urged people to register to vote and head to the polls.
Abbott, who is running for reelection, placed the blame on Biden and was blunt in a tweet from Monday night: “These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies.”
At Least 42 People Found Dead Inside Truck Carrying Migrants In Texas.— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) June 28, 2022
These deaths are on Biden.
They are a result of his deadly open border policies.
They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law. https://t.co/8KG3iAwlEk
Migrants — largely from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — have been expelled more than 2 million times under a pandemic-era rule in effect since March 2020 that denies them a chance to seek asylum but encourages repeat attempts because there are no legal consequences for getting caught. People from other countries, notably Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia, are subject to Title 42 authority less frequently due to higher costs of sending them home, strained diplomatic relations and other considerations.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths on the southwest border in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported in the previous year and the highest since it began keeping track in 1998. Most are related to heat exposure.
CBP has not published a death tally for this year but said that the Border Patrol performed 14,278 “search-and-rescue missions” in a seven-month period through May, exceeding the 12,833 missions performed during the previous 12-month period and up from 5,071 the year before.
Homeland Security taking over the investigation
McManus said the investigation was turned over to Homeland Security Investigations on Monday night.
SAPD “offered any type of assistance that they needed,” McManus added.
HSI officials released the following statement on Monday night:
“On June 27, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) responded to a call from San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) in reference to an alleged human smuggling event involving a tractor trailer on Quintana Road near Cassin Road. Upon arrival in the scene, HSI confirmed more than 40 deceased individuals.
HSI San Antonio has initiated an investigation with support of SAPD. Details will be released as they are available, the criminal investigation remains ongoing.
HSI continues its enforcement efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of our communities. We will continue to address the serious public safety threat posed by human smuggling organizations and their reckless disregard for the health and safety of those smuggled. To report suspicious activity, we encourage people to call the HSI Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2ICE. All calls are kept confidential.”
Biden calls deaths ‘horrifying and heartbreaking’
In a statement on Tuesday, President Joe Biden called the migrant deaths “horrifying and heartbreaking.”
He also thanked the “swift work” of first responders and federal and state officials.
“While we are still learning all the facts about what happened and the Department of Homeland Security has the lead for the investigation, initial reports are that this tragedy was caused by smugglers or human traffickers who have no regard for the lives they endanger and exploit to make a profit,” he stated. “This incident underscores the need to go after the multi-billion dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths.”
Biden is expected to meet with Obrador on July 12 at the White House.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One — where Biden was flying between summits in Germany and Spain — that the administration was focused on the victims and holding human smugglers accountable.
“The fact of the matter is, the border is closed, which is in part why you see people trying to make this dangerous journey using smuggling networks,” she said. “Our prayers are with those who tragically lost their lives, their loved ones as well as those still fighting for their lives. We’re also grateful for the swift work of federal, state and local first responders.”
Mayor calls it ‘nothing short of a horrific human tragedy’
The mayor said the “plight of migrants seeking refuge is always a humanitarian crisis” and asked people to think compassionately about the deceased and their families.
“It’s tragic,” Nirenberg said. “They had families... and were likely trying to find a better life... this is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy.”
“We hope that those responsible for putting these people through such inhumane conditions are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Nirenberg said.
Migrants seeking asylum should always be treated as a humanitarian crisis, but this evening we're facing a horrific human tragedy.— Mayor Ron Nirenberg (@Ron_Nirenberg) June 28, 2022
More than 40 hopeful lives were lost. I urge you to think compassionately, pray for the deceased, the ailing, and their families at this moment.
Pastor on why migrants risk a dangerous journey to US
The associate pastor of Travis Park Church talks about the dangers migrants face in order to seek a dream in the U.S.
SAFD says 60 employees will receive undergo behavioral assessments
The San Antonio fire chief said 60 members of SAFD who responded to the scene will undergo critical incident stress debriefing.
“Again, we’re not supposed to open up a truck and see stacks of bodies in there. None of us come to work imagining that,” the fire chief said.
Ten medic units were used to transport the survivors, according to Hood.