San Antonio first responders describe scene of trailer deaths, say people ‘basically cooking’

SAFD Chief Charles Hood said meat tenderizer seasoning used to mask smell

SAFD Chief Charles Hood. (KSAT)

SAN ANTONIO – First responders with the San Antonio Fire Department recalled the “horrific scene” they arrived at Monday on the Southwest Side, where dozens of migrants died as they were left inside a sweltering trailer.

The victims, they said, were basically “cooking” as they didn’t have access to water, air conditioning or ventilation and as temperatures surpassed 100 degrees. They were also apparently covered in a meat tenderizer seasoning to mask their smell in an effort to confuse dogs who are trained to smell for humans at Border Patrol checkpoints, authorities said.

As of Wednesday, 53 people have been pronounced dead.

“I was taken aback by the numbers of people we were getting and the resources that were being sent out there,” SAFD Chief Charles Hood told ABC News’ Matt Gutman on Tuesday, adding that he arrived on the scene at 6:45 p.m., as survivors were still being transported to hospitals.

“It was organized chaos.”

A Bexar County spokesperson said 48 people died at the scene and first responders sent 16 people, including four pediatric patients and 12 adults, to area hospitals. Five of those patients died at a hospital.

Every survivor was “very close” to death, according to Bryn Everitt, an associate medical director with the SAFD. They were hot to the touch and weak when they were rescued.

Everitt told ABC News that those victims needed immediate treatment because when bodies are subjected to that type of prolonged heat, their organs shut down and they go into cardiac arrest.

“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.”

Dr. David Miramontes, the medical director for the San Antonio Fire Department, said people “basically are cooking in that environment.”

“Everything’s painful. It’s a horrible way to die.”

Hood said first responders put a monitor on every unresponsive victim at the scene to make sure there were no signs of life.

He said he won’t forget the smell from the scene: the scent of meat seasoning.

“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.

Hood added that he also remembered seeing a migrant’s prayer card on the ground and a male victim with new Air Jordan shoes, which were likely that man’s “prize possession in life.”

“And he’s trying to come to some place to get a job and go out and be able to get shoes,” Hood said. “And so that’s what stuck with me because they were in good shape. He was proud of those.”

Everitt and Miramontes called the treatment of the people inside the trailer “disgusting” and said this is a common problem in South Texas.

In the summer of 2017, a driver left migrants in the back of a tractor-trailer at a Walmart parking lot on the Southwest Side, not far from Monday’s scene. Ten people ultimately died.

Hood said that case was different; this time, there were no holes for people to get air.

“We’re tired of this. These are... healthy, vibrant young people that are coming here for a better life. They came from terrible situations,” Miramontes said. “Unfortunately, we see all too much of this. I wish we could stop it. I wish we could respond earlier. But we do the best we can with the resources we have currently.”

Both Hood and Miramontes said they are encouraging first responders to seek help and counseling because the services are available to them.

Hood called it a “career incident” for those first responders. People aren’t “built” to respond to the carnage of that kind, he said.

He added that the sight of 18-wheelers will be a trigger for him and many of the first responders, knowing there may be people in their trailers.

Everitt said he made sure to thank the firefighters and paramedics and tell them they “did a great job”

“... they need to hear those things because they feel guilty about not saving more people.”

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About the Author:

Rebecca Salinas joined KSAT in the fall of 2019. Her skills include content management, engagement and reporting.