Subscribe for 17¢ / day

VICTORIA, Texas (AP) — Seventeen people were found dead Wednesday when authorities opened up a sweltering, airless trailer that had been abandoned at a South Texas truck stop with more than 100 illegal immigrants locked inside. An 18th victim died later at a hospital in one of the deadliest smuggling attempts on record in the United States.

The men, women and children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were apparently so desperate for air that they tried to claw through insulation on the back door. At least one of those trapped inside placed a desperate call to police late Tuesday, saying people were suffocating and pleading with a dispatcher to "help me."

When sheriff's deputies opened the trailer about 2 a.m., "a flood of human beings" spilled out, U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby said. Many ran off, but others were too weak to go far.

Thirteen bodies were found inside the trailer and four more on the ground just outside. A boy, 5 or 6 years old, was among the dead.

Authorities said one of three suspected smugglers was arrested Wednesday in the Houston area, about 115 miles northeast of Victoria. The man, Tyrone Williams of Schenectady, N.Y., was not immediately charged.

The trailer had New York plates and it is registered in Williams' name, Shelby said. Authorities were still looking for two more suspects.

The smugglers apparently unhitched the trailer at the truck stop near Victoria, about 175 miles from the Mexican border, and drove off. Insulation around several small holes in the back door was scraped away, suggesting the immigrants had tried to get out.

Someone inside also placed a phone call to authorities pleading for help. The 911 call to police in Kingsville, 100 miles south of Victoria, came in just before midnight Tuesday from a Spanish speaker on a cellular phone with lots of yelling and background noise.

Police Chief Sam Granato said the dispatcher passed the call to someone who spoke Spanish, but the call was cut off and the number couldn't be traced. But after listening to a digital recording, Granato said police were able to hear the man saying that that people were asphyxiating.

"He kept saying that over and over again," said Granato, adding that the man also said "help me" and "there's nine down."

Granato said someone traveling on U.S. Highway 77 called police to report seeing a hand waving a bandanna out of a hole in the back of a white 18-wheeler with New York plates. Granato said it wasn't until a teletype came in from Victoria about the white 18-wheeler that dispatchers connected the calls.

It was the deadliest immigrant-smuggling attempt in the United States in more than 15 years. In 1987, the Border Patrol found 18 Mexican immigrants dead in a boxcar left on a rail siding in the West Texas town of Sierra Blanca.

"This case involves the greatest loss of life in recent history in what appears to be an alien-smuggling case," said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Homeland Security Department.

He said the federal agency would help catch those involved.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

"This grim discovery is a horrific reminder of the callous disregard smugglers have for their human cargo," Hutchinson said in Washington.

The trailer had arrived at the truck stop about an hour before authorities were notified, Sheriff Michael Ratcliff said.

It was not clear how long the people had been in the trailer, where the truck came from or where it was going. The trailer had a refrigeration unit, but authorities would not say if it had been running or was even working.

The "vast majority" of the immigrants are from Mexico, though there are also people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, said Marco Nunez, a spokesman for the Mexican consulate in Houston.

Six men, ages 20 to 47, were hospitalized with heat-related injuries, one of them in critical condition.

"It's brutally hot down here," said Jerrel Robinowich, spokesman for Detar Hospital Navarro. He said the truck had little or no ventilation "and you can just imagine the consequences of that."

The National Weather Service said it was 74 degrees with 93 percent humidity at 2 a.m. The high Tuesday was 91, one degree shy of a record for the date.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.