The death toll includes migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, according to a federal law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The medical examiner’s office has identified potentially 34 of 51 victims, Clay-Flores said. The county medical examiner has also asked for assistance from medical examiner offices in neighboring counties due to the large number of victims.
“This is the worst human-smuggling event in the United States. This sheds light on how dangerous human smuggling is,” said Craig Larrabee, Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio acting special agent in charge.
“In the past, smuggling organizations were mom and pop. Now they are organized and tied in with the cartels. So you have a criminal organization who has no regard for the safety of the migrants. They are treated like commodities rather than people,” he told CNN in a phone interview.
Three people detained away from the trailer site are in police custody, though their connection to the situation is unclear, Police Chief Bill McManus said at a news conference Monday night.
Authorities were alerted to the scene just before 6 p.m., when a worker in a nearby building heard a cry for help, McManus said. The worker found a trailer with doors partially opened and saw people deceased inside, he said.
Forty-eight people died on the scene, and two died at hospitals, the federal law enforcement official told CNN on Tuesday, noting the toll is preliminary.
Sixteen people — 12 adults and four children — were taken alive and conscious to medical facilities, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said at Monday night’s news conference.
Patients were hot to the touch and suffering from heat stroke and exhaustion, Hood said. The refrigerator semitractor-trailer had no visible working air conditioning unit, and there was no sign of water inside, he said. It’s not clear how long people inside the truck had been dead, the official said.
“None of these people were able to extricate themselves out of the truck,” Hood said. “So they were still in there, awaiting help, when we arrived … meaning just being too weak — weakened state — to actually get out and help themselves.”
Ashley C. Hoff, US Attorney for the Western District of Texas, said the migrants were “the apparent victims of human smugglers indifferent to the well-being of human life.”
She added: “We will continue to work with the Homeland Security Investigations and the local responders to identify and bring those who were responsible for this tragedy to justice.”
Those in the truck included at least 22 Mexicans and two Hondurans, the federal law enforcement official said. Seven Guatemalans were among the dead, and another Guatemalan was in a hospital in critical condition, that nation’s foreign minister told CNN.
President Joe Biden described the discovery as “horrifying and heartbreaking,” saying the deaths underscored the need to go after criminal trafficking rings.
The truck went Monday through a checkpoint north of Laredo, Texas, said US Rep. Henry Cuellar, who represents a district including Laredo and San Antonio, which are about 150 miles apart. Cuellar spoke Tuesday with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and has been in touch with US Border Patrol, he told CNN.
Firefighters saw ‘stacks of bodies’
The 60 firefighters that were on scene are being put through a critical incident stress debriefing, Hood said.
“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.
One of the bodies was outside the trailer when firefighters arrived, Hood said.
Business owners in the area where the trailer was found told CNN they were in shock.
They were human beings, it was terrible,” said Israel Martinez, 68, co-owner of USA Auto Parts. “We (migrants) come to this country for a better life and yesterday reminded many of us that sadly, some of us achieve it but many others don’t do it.”
US officials are working to better handle the flow of migrants to the US-Mexico border, Mayorkas told CNN earlier this month. Their operation builds on previous initiatives to go after smugglers whom migrants often depend on as they make their way to the border. Homeland Security last spring also announced an effort to crack down on criminal smuggling organizations, alongside federal partners.
Migrants in recent years have faced other tragedies and challenges enduring dangerous heat and terrain while trying to cross the US-Mexico border.
CNN’s Carolyn Sung, Michelle Watson, Karol Suarez, Kevin Liptak, Jason Hanna, Sharif Paget, Jen Deaton, Amanda Jackson and Steve Almasy contributed to this report.
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