San Antonio (CNN) — When San Antonio police officers responded to the scene of a truck with dozens of migrants inside, they hoped to rescue the occupants, Police Chief William McManus told CNN. Instead, they discovered a “more than tragic” scene.
“This was a crime against humanity. This was nothing but sheer evil, that anyone could allow this to happen, to anyone, let alone so many people,” McManus said.
McManus, who has been in law enforcement since 1975, was reluctant to describe the graphic scene.
“The floor of the trailer was completely covered in bodies. Completely covered in bodies,” she said. “There were at least more than 10 bodies outside the trailer, because when we arrived, when the emergency crews arrived, we were trying to find people who were still alive. So we had to get the bodies out of the trailer on the ground.”
In radio traffic from the emergency service, posted on the scanner’s website Broadcastify.com, a person can be heard calling for more help at the scene. “I have too many bodies here,” says the man.
About 10 minutes later, another man says, “We’re going to need someone to prosecute. Everyone on the scene, including my DIs, is busy helping out. We’ve got about 20 or so victims.”
No other victims were found after a search of the area with police dogs, McManus said.
In all, 53 people were killed in what a Homeland Security Investigations agent called the deadliest human smuggling incident in US history. Some victims could be under the age of 18.
Authorities in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras have said they are collaborating with US authorities to try to identify the people who died.
What we know about the driver of the truck with the bodies
The suspected truck driver was seen attempting to leave the scene, McManus said. In the Broadcastify recording, one person says the man was seen running near some train tracks, while another says he was keeping an eye on the driver, believed to be a man in a brown shirt.
The chief said a police helicopter followed the suspect, who was eventually detained in a field. The chief did not delve into the condition or behavior of the alleged driver.
Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, was arrested Wednesday, according to a statement from the US Department of Justice. Surveillance footage from a camera at an immigration checkpoint showed the driver of the 18-wheeler wearing black striped clothing and a hat.
“(San Antonio police) officers were led to the location of an individual, later identified as Zamorano, who was observed hiding in the brush after attempting to abscond. Zamorano was taken into custody by SAPD officers,” the statement said. of the Department of Justice.
Zamorano, who lives in Pasadena, Texas, is charged with one count of alien smuggling resulting in death, according to the release.
CNN has not been able to determine if he has an attorney.
Three other people have also been arrested and charged in connection with the case.
Eleven survivors of the tragedy are still in hospitals
Eleven of the 16 survivors are still hospitalized, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At least two people are in critical condition, hospital officials said.
Gustavo Garcia-Siller, archbishop of the San Antonio diocese, said most of the survivors were unresponsive or unable to communicate due to their conditions when he visited earlier this week.
“They were all hooked up to machines and some intubated, so there was no possibility of dialogue. My place was to pray, to think of their families. I spoke to some of them without getting any response but I knew I was talking to real people who are suffering and that God knows their hearts,” Garcia-Siller told CNN.
After visiting the six hospitals where survivors have been treated, the archbishop said he was only able to speak to a 16-year-old Guatemalan girl. The girl had not been able to contact her family because she had to hand over her phone, Garcia-Siller said.
“The dialogue was to reassure her that everyone was there to help her, that she was alive,” he said.
“She was the last one I saw, looking at all the others, she seemed fine and the nurse told me she was fine but they had to hold her to be sure. In her reactions, she wasn’t talking much, surely as expected,” she added.
The archbishop said at another hospital that he was able to communicate with another survivor only through hand gestures.
“I invited her to trust, I assured her that she has succeeded and that we hope she will make a full recovery. For immigrants (it is) very difficult to trust the people around them, especially if you see one, two officials at the door of your room,” she said.
Garcia-Siller said he has worked with migrants since the 1980s, but he has never seen such a large group of people die in a single incident.
“People were left to die. They were dying, burning inside that place, you can imagine without water, without food, with natural physical needs. It’s hard to imagine what happened in that box, that dark box. I invite you to respect people. People are people. Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself,” she said.
A monument to the victims
A makeshift memorial continues to grow on the desolate road outside San Antonio where the truck was discovered.
Mostly silent on Wednesday, dozens of families laid out flowers, candles bearing images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and bottles of water, a nod to how migrants carry water on their journey to the United States.
Just feet from a Honduran flag, the word “migrants” is crossed out on a sign that now reads “53 Humans!”
Among those who visited the memorial, some people wore the jersey of the Honduran national soccer team and many spoke Spanish and Mayan indigenous languages while praying or holding up their phones, showing the monument during video calls with relatives outside the US.
“My aunt in Honduras asked me to call her from here, she is the one who first told me what happened,” said a woman who had been on a video call.
A second monument built around clothing and two pairs of black sneakers began several yards further on Wednesday. A group of people who believed the clothes might have belonged to some of the migrants in the truck put them on the ground and placed a couple of candles around them.
Texas to Increase Truck Checkpoints
On Monday, the truck passed through a checkpoint north of Laredo, Texas, according to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose large district includes Laredo and San Antonio. He was discovered nearly 150 miles north of the border.
Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott announced Wednesday that the state would add truck checkpoints and that the Department of Public Safety (DPS) “will create and implement a checkpoint strategy that will start from immediately and will start targeting trucks like the one used” in this incident.
Abbott also said the state will create two strike teams to “detect, deter and stop” illegal immigrant crossings.
The teams, comprising 20 soldiers each, will be deployed to the border city of Eagle Pass, according to Abbott, with additional units stationed in “high-traffic crossing areas as needed.” The governor said the resources were being deployed to “mitigate President Biden’s escalating border crisis.”
The Biden administration released earlier this month what the US Secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, described as an “unprecedented” operation to disrupt human smuggling networks amid large numbers of migrants arriving at the southern border.
After Monday’s horrific discovery, Mayorkas said on social media: “Too many lives have been lost as people, including families, women and children, take this dangerous journey.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeated those words at a briefing on Wednesday. “As Secretary Mayorkas said, too many lives have been lost on this dangerous journey. We will continue to take action to disrupt human smuggling networks, which have no regard for lives. They exploit, exploit and endanger for profit,” he said. Jean Pierre.
— CNN’s Rebekah Riess, Amir Vera, Joe Sutton, Amanda Musa, Travis Caldwell, Carolyn Sung, Michelle Watson, Karol Suarez, Kevin Liptak, Jason Hanna, Sharif Paget and Amanda Jackson contributed to this report.