SAN ANTONIO, Texas, June 27 (UPI) — The bodies of 46 people were found Monday evening inside and around a tractor-trailer abandoned on the side of a road just outside of San Antonio, authorities said.
Sixteen people, including four children, were also found alive inside the trailer and were rushed to local hospitals suffering from heat stroke and exhaustion, city officials and authorities told reporters during a press conference.
“The plight of migrants seeking refuge is always a humanitarian crisis but tonight we are dealing with a horrific human tragedy,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “We hope that those responsible for putting these people in such inhumane conditions are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
The victims are believed to have been migrants who had crossed over the Mexico border into the United States though the authorities said they were unsure of their nations of origin.
San Antonio police chief William McManus told reporters that three people were in custody but it was unclear their connection to what he said was the largest death toll connected to a human smuggling case in the city that he could recall.
Authorities were called to scene at the 9600 block of Quintana Road shortly before 6 p.m. Monday. A worker at a nearby business had heard a cry for help and found the trailer with its doors partially opened. Inside, the worker saw dead bodies, McManus said.
Responders with the San Antonio Fire Department were the first to arrive and found at least one body outside the trailer and several inside, chief Charles Hood of the fire department said.
“We’re not supposed to open up a truck and see stacks of bodies in there,” he said. “None of us come to work imagining that.”
There was no water inside the trailer, which was also a refrigerated truck but the air conditioning was not turned it, he said. It was also unknown how long they had been in the trailer.
According to the National Weather Service, the temperature on Monday hit a high of 101 degrees.
Hood said the 16 people alive were conscious but were “hot to the touch” and were “too weak” to exit the trailer on their own.
No children were among the deceased, he said, adding that he was hopeful those transported to local hospitals would survive.
McManus also added that he is was not confident that everyone who was in the truck had been accounted for and police canines have been searching the nearby woods for survivors.
The Department of Homeland Security said it has initiated a criminal investigation.
It secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, said he was “heartbroken” by the incident and was praying for those still fighting for their lives.
“Human smugglers are callous individuals who have no regard for the vulnerable people they exploit and endanger in order to make a profit,” he tweeted. “We will work alongside our partners to hold those responsible for this tragedy accountable and continue to take action to disrupt smuggling networks.”
The Mexican consulate was on the scene late Monday, Marcelo Ebrard, the country’s foreign minister, said via Twitter.
Enrique Reina, the foreign minister of Honduras, tweeted that his office was investigating whether any Hondurans were among the deceased.