“A human trafficking incident” was reported by San Antonio police to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security investigation unit, which is leading the investigation, an immigration and customs enforcement spokesman said Monday. The incident has been particularly dangerous in recent years for migrants near the southern border.
Three people detained from the trailer site are in police custody, but the connection to their condition 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 cries for help, McManus said. McManus said the worker, who found a trailer, opened the doors partially and found the dead inside.
Forty-eight people died at the scene, and two died at hospitals, a federal law enforcement official told CNN on Tuesday, noting that the number was initial.
Sixteen people – 12 adults and four children – were taken alive to medical facilities, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood told a news conference Monday night.
Patients were hot to the touch and suffered from heat stroke and fatigue, Hood said. He said there was no air conditioning unit working on the refrigerator semitractor-trailer and there was no sign of water inside.
“None of these people were able to get themselves out of the truck,” Hood said. “So they were still there, waiting for help when we arrived … that is, very weak – vulnerable – to really get out and help themselves.”
Those in the truck included at least 22 Mexicans, seven Guatemalans and two Hondurans, the federal law enforcement official said.
Federal officials are trying to trace the origin of the truck and its trajectory, the official said, adding that it was not clear how long the occupants of the truck had been dead.
Victims ‘may have tried to find a better life’
The 60 firefighters at the scene have been put under pressure by a major incident, Hood said.
“We should not open a truck and look at the layers of bodies there. Imagine that none of us come to work,” the fire chief said.
One of the bodies was outside the trailer when firefighters arrived, Hood said.
“It’s sad,” Mayor Ron Niranberg said Monday. The dead, he said, “had families and they were trying to find a better life.”
The Mexican embassy in San Antonio said on social media that aid would be provided to Mexicans. At least two of the 16 survivors have been identified as Guatemala, the Mexican foreign ministry said, citing the embassy.
U.S. officials are working to better manage the flow of migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, Majorcos told CNN earlier this month. Their activity is structured based on previous initiatives to track down the kidnappers whose immigrants often stay. Last spring Homeland Security announced an effort with federal allies to crack down on criminal trafficking organizations.
In recent years immigrants have faced other tragedies and challenges as they endured dangerous heat and terrain while trying to cross the US-Mexico border.
CNN’s Carolyn Sung, Michelle Watson, Karol Suarez, Sharif Paget, Jen Deaton, Amanda Jackson and Steve Almasy contributed to the report.