Authorities in the United States have filed a criminal charge against the driver of an overheated truck found in Texas packed with migrants as the death toll rose to 10, prosecutors said.
James Bradley Jr was arrested on Sunday after police said they found the bodies of eight people in the truck in San Antonio, Texas, a two-hour drive from the border between the US and Mexico when one of them approached a Walmart employee asking for water.
The employee brought water and then called the police, who found 38 people crammed in the trailer which had a broken refrigeration system, parked in the baking Texas heat.
All of them were illegal immigrants, the bulk of them Mexican nationals, ranging in age from 15 into their 20s and 30s, officials said.
Eight people were pronounced dead at the scene, and two others died later at the hospital.
The truck driver said he was unaware of the human cargo he was hauling until he took a rest stop in Texas, court papers showed on Monday.
The trailer may have held between 70 to 200 people, with some migrants fleeing in six SUVs that had been waiting when the truck stopped in the car park, according to witness accounts given to authorities.
Bradley told investigators he was caught by surprise when he opened the trailer doors, only to be knocked down by a group of “Spanish” people pouring out of the rig, according to the criminal complaint filed in the case.
He made a brief appearance in federal court on Monday in San Antonio, where he was charged with one count of transporting illegal immigrants – a felony for which he could face capital punishment if convicted because the crime resulted in deaths.
A harrowing journey
Describing desperate conditions inside the truck without water or proper ventilation, one survivor recalled people taking turns to gasp for fresh air through a hole in the trailer’s side.
Some passed out, while others shouted and pounded on the walls of the truck to get the driver’s attention. Their pleas went unanswered until arriving at the Walmart, according to the account.
“People began hitting the trailer walls and making noise to get the driver’s attention. The driver never stopped,” according to one of the migrants who were interviewed, identified only as JMM-J.
JMM-J said he was a Mexican national and part of a group of 29 people being smuggled into the US. He said that after crossing the border, they joined 70 migrants already in the truck’s trailer.
According to the migrant’s recollection, his smuggler said “people linked to the Zetas” crime cartel were offering protection for the journey through Mexico to the US border, and that once arriving in the country he was to pay $5,500.
Crossing the border illegally from Mexico has long been a dangerous proposition, according to US Customs and Border Protection, which has documented at least 7,000 deaths among those making the trek since 1998.