Eighteen suspected illegal aliens trapped in a locked, steel-walled boxcar were found dead in stifling 120-degree temperatures Thursday in what authorities called a botched smuggling effort.
One man survived the 14-hour ordeal by using a spike to punch a hole through the floor and breathing through the opening, said Mike Williams, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol in El Paso.
“They appear to have gotten excessively hot. Some appeared to have gone into convulsions . . . and they were dehydrated,” said William Harrington, assistant chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol.
Boarded at El Paso
The aliens had boarded an eastbound Missouri Pacific freight train Wednesday afternoon at El Paso, about 90 miles northwest of Sierra Blanca on the Texas-Mexican border, Williams said. They apparently were making their way to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
The freight train apparently stayed on a siding Wednesday night and was delayed for some mechanical problem, he said.
Williams said the temperature in the boxcar probably exceeded 120 degrees and the victims apparently died from the heat. The bodies were found Thursday morning during a routine Border Patrol inspection of boxcars.
“It is definitely an organized smuggling effort,” Williams said. “Possibly one of the smugglers was planning on riding the train on the outside, in a different boxcar, with the idea of opening it up the first chance they stopped. But we haven’t got that far yet.
“Obviously, it was a terrible and tragic mistake to do this, and we are working on trying to find out who that individual was from the survivor,” he said.
Guides in Boxcar
Two guides and a smuggler accompanied the aliens, Williams said. The guides, also believed to be illegal aliens, got into the boxcar and the third man locked it from the outside, he said.
The survivor, Miguel Tostada-Rodriguez, 21, of the Mexican state of Aguas Calientes, was given medical treatment in the town of Van Horn and was being questioned by Border Patrol agents.
Harrington said government agents might never positively identify the dead, who were believed to be men in their 20s or 30s.
“They were, from their outward appearance, illegal aliens. But there is no way for us to be totally sure, because they don’t carry any identification,” he said.
Clothing was scattered around the boxcar, making the process of identification even more difficult, officials said.
Harrington said aliens usually use El Paso freight yards to leave the border area.
“It is not uncommon to find aliens in a boxcar,” he said. “But we just don’t find them locked inside.”
In April, 1984, five Salvadorans were killed and six other aliens seriously injured as they were being led by smugglers on a forced march on a narrow railroad trestle near Kingsville, Tex. A train drove through the group, forcing them to fall or jump 30 feet into a shallow creek to avoid being hit.
During the Fourth of July weekend in 1980, a motorist’s report of a man lying by the side of a remote Arizona highway led to a search that rescued 12 Salvadorans and two Mexican smugglers. Thirteen other people died in the attempt to cross the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where sand temperatures reached 150 degrees.