Fourty-six people were found dead in a tractor-trailer near San Antonio, Texas, on Monday evening, local police said. Initial reports suggest the victims were migrants who had recently crossed the border.
The trailer was discovered on a road southwest of the city’s downtown by a local worker who heard a cry for help around 6 pm, police said. When he came to investigate, he found the doors partially open and a number of deceased individuals inside.
Sixteen survivors, including four children, were taken to local hospitals suffering from heat stroke and heat exhaustion, the city’s fire chief Charles Hood told reporters at a press conference.
Mr Hood said those taken alive from the trailer were “hot to the touch,” but were likely to survive.
“It is our hope and prayer that the conditions of those that were transported will improve as we speak,” he added.
San Antonio police chief William McManus said three people were in custody following a preliminary investigation, but declined to give further details. The investigation is now being handled by the Department of Homeland Security.
Images from the scene showed roads blocked and dozens of first responders surrounding what appeared to be an 18-wheeler next to railroad tracks. US Border Patrol, police, the fire department and ambulances at the scene.
The cause of the deaths is currently unknown, but smugglers are often known to use trailers to transport large numbers of migrants, and temperatures in the San Antonio and southern Texas have reached 100 degrees in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, the US Border Patrol warned migrants not to risk their lives trying to cross the desert border amid record-breaking temperatures.
“(We) highly discourage migrants from attempting to illegally enter the United States, especially during summer months. The recent triple-digit temperatures represent a dangerous condition that can easily end in dehydration or heatstroke, provoking death,” the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector said in a statement.
Local resident Ruby Chavez, 53, told the New York Times that the area where the trailer was discovered was known as a “drop-off spot” for migrants.
“You can tell they just get here. We see them with backpacks or asking for food or money,” she told the newspaper.
Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio’s mayor, called the incident a “horrific human tragedy.”
“There are, that we know of, 46 individuals who are no longer with us, who had families, who were likely trying to find a better life. And we have 16 folks who are fighting for their lives in the hospital. Our focus right now is to try to bring aid to them as best we can. But this is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” he said.
At least 650 migrants died crossing the US-Mexico border in 2021, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a United Nations agency that monitors migration — the highest death toll since records began in 1998.
The US Border Patrol estimates 557 migrants died along the border from October 2020 through September 2021.
But the IOM believes both estimates are significantly lower than the true count due to the difficulty of tracking every fatality.
While an investigation was still underway, Texas governor Greg Abbott was quick to blame the tragedy on president Joe Biden.
“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,” he wrote on Twitter.