“We Are Going to Die In Here”

Sometime after ten o’ clock on the night of May 13, 2003, at least 74 illegal immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Dominican Republic crowded into the airtight container of an eighteen-wheeler in Harlingen, bound for Houston and a better life. Along the way, seventeen of them succumbed to dehydration, hyperthermia, and suffocation; two more would perish a short time later. In this excerpt from the just-released Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History, Jorge Ramos describes what it was like inside the sweltering trailer on that horrible night.

May 2005By Comments

The First Hour

ENRIQUE ORTEGA WAS the last to board the truck. He was thinking about an old Mexican movie about immigrants who died inside a water truck. After the doors were shut from the outside, he pressed his body against one of them. Then he felt the truck lurch into movement.

“Five minutes later, I started to sweat, a lot,” Enrique remembers. “It was hot. Everyone was sweating.”

After leaving Harlingen at approximately ten o’clock at night, the truck headed north on U.S. 77. It would soon have to pass through the town of Sarita, where the immigration service had an inspection booth, and then the driver, Tyrone Williams, would head for Kingsville and on to Robstown. When he set out on the road that night, Tyrone had no idea that later he would be asked to continue the journey all the way to Houston.

The immigrants did not fit comfortably in the truck’s trailer. Some remained on their feet, leaning against the walls, while others squatted or sat with their knees pressed against their chests. The metal floor was lined with thin bars that ran the length of the trailer, to facilitate the manipulation of heavy cargo loads. This made the floor an extremely painful place to sit. Trailers are not made for transporting human cargo.

Everyone in the trailer was sweating furiously. It is impossible to calculate the exact temperature, but after a few minutes, it might very well have risen above 100 degrees. As hot as a sauna. Right from the start, the immigrants began to experience the first symptoms of extreme heat exposure: dizziness, nausea, an increasingly rapid heartbeat, and disorientation.

When the ambient temperature rises, the human body naturally begins to perspire. When the perspiration evaporates, the skin is refreshed. But conditions were far from normal inside the trailer. The temperature would rise at least 40 degrees higher than the outside temperature, which was 74 degrees. Subjected to such intense heat, the immigrants’ bodies quickly lost the ability to regulate their temperature.

In addition to all this, many of the immigrants were wearing layers of clothing. Logically, they had feared that it might get cold inside the container if the driver put the air conditioning on. But they were also wearing everything they owned; nobody was willing to leave behind the few clothes they possessed.

It wasn’t long before people began to grow frantic. It was so dark that the travelers couldn’t even see their hands, and in the middle of this dark confusion, someone came up with a suggestion: “Let’s take off our shirts and fan ourselves.” At that, several men removed their shirts and began to wave them around in an effort to generate even the tiniest bit of circulation through the heavy, humid air.

This, however, was not enough. The real problem was that there was no way for fresh air to enter the trailer. The situation called for more drastic measures. “Everyone in the back of the truck—break the taillights so that we can get some air!” shouted one of the passengers. “Break them!”

Enrique and Alberto Aranda Amaro were at the back of the truck, clinging to the doors. Painstakingly, with their fingers, they tried to pry off the metal layer that covered the door on the right-hand side, to no avail. Then, exploring the surface of the door with his hands, Enrique discovered that its corner edge was reinforced with some kind of rubber. He pulled at it, yanking it harder and harder until it finally broke. But then, under the rubber, he found another layer of insulation: foam rubber, which he ripped off. For the first time, they could make out a tiny sliver of light. Frantically, they searched the container for something to use to break the taillights.

“I was pretty desperate by then,” Alberto says. “I broke the two lights with my hands, and they were covered in blood, but I didn’t even notice until the next day. Enrique hit the lights too.” In the end, those two little holes that opened onto the outside world would save their lives.

They managed to carve out a slightly larger hole on the inside of the truck, about the same diameter as Alberto’s forearm. In order to breathe a bit of fresh air—combined with exhaust fumes, of course—Alberto had to stick his nose as far as he could into the hole. Unfortunately, it was not large enough to significantly improve the situation for most of the passengers.

The truck was cruising at barely 50 miles per hour. The driver apparently didn’t want to risk getting stopped by the police for speeding, so he drove well under the legal limit. “We are going to die in here. I know it,” Alberto remembers thinking.

When the other passengers realized the existence of the hole, they began to rush to the back. There were some people who didn’t want to let go once they got to the hole. But it didn’t take them long to realize that the air that seeped in wasn’t so good.

The Second Hour

IT HAD BEEN JUST OVER an hour since the truck had departed Harlingen, and the situation was already dire, especially for five-year-old Marco Antonio Villaseñor. His father carried him from the center of the trailer to the back so that he could breathe. Despite the darkness, most of the immigrants could tell that the little boy was in bad shape.

When the relative humidity is as high as it was on that May night—93 percent, according to meteorological reports—perspiration does not evaporate as rapidly, so the body will not cool off and its temperature will not go down. That night, the immigrants felt as if their bodies had been coated with some kind of slick, slightly greasy substance. Their clothes were soaked through, and they could feel water swishing around inside their shoes.

The truck’s movements gave many of them vertigo. They began to grow disoriented, and after a certain point, it wasn’t easy to know which way was up and which way was down. Then, of course, there was the psychological element. By their second hour inside the trailer, many of the immigrants were hyperventilating. The darkness, the fear, and the strange noises made by their fellow passengers only added to their anxiety, and their breathing grew faster and more labored. Hyperventilation and fear became a vicious and fatal cycle. Some people began to lose consciousness, and some vomited.

Their bodies had grown hotter than 100 degrees and were becoming dehydrated. In general, human body temperature can go up 5 or 6 degrees in fewer than fifteen minutes. In addition, the immigrants had no water to drink; many of them had not known they would be traveling in a locked trailer, and the coyotes (the people who had helped them cross the border illegally) had not provided them with water. After so much perspiring, their skin suddenly had no more liquid to draw from, and yet the humid air kept them coated in a layer of sweat.

After an hour and a half on the road, as the truck approached the immigration service’s checkpoint in Sarita, the immigrants began to discuss what to do once the truck pulled in at the inspection booth. They could make a lot of noise and bang against the walls; that would certainly get someone to open the doors. But once the doors opened, their journey would end. Not only would they almost certainly be deported, but they would also lose the money they had paid the coyotes. Somewhere in the darkness, a voice piped up, saying that in half an hour they would all be let out of the truck. At that, the debate ended. They couldn’t have known that the trailer doors wouldn’t open for another two and a half hours.

Doris Sulema Argueta, a Honduran woman, was traveling with her sister-in-law and a friend. One of the first things that had caught her eye was a little boy, about six years old, she guessed, who was crying and crying. His father had removed almost all his clothing so that the heat would be a little more bearable. According to Doris, the child did not survive much longer.

Doris also noticed a man nearby who was vomiting. Then, suddenly, he stopped. She surmised that, like the little boy, the man had probably died.

It seems that only one person inside the trailer was carrying a cell phone: Matías Rafael Medina Flores, a 25-year-old Honduran who did not speak English. Alberto heard him call out, “I have a telephone with me. I’m going to try to make a call.” At first, he couldn’t get service, but after a little while, Matías was able to place a call to 911.

After several tries, someone answered, but the operator didn’t speak Spanish. Apparently, an attempt was made to transfer the call to someone who did, but the connection was lost, and the operators were unable to trace Matías’s cell phone number. One of the immigrants’ few precious chances to get help had failed.

Meanwhile, according to investigative reports, Karla Chávez and Abelardo Flores Jr., the coyotes identified as being in charge of the operation, and the driver, Tyrone Williams, were in constant contact with one another, completely unaware of what was happening inside the truck’s container.

For Tyrone, the deal was pretty simple. All he had to do was drive the immigrants to Robstown, halfway between Harlingen and Houston, taking the highway that runs parallel to the Gulf of Mexico coastline. Once he was out on the road, he received a phone call offering him $7,500 more if he would drive all the way to Houston. It was tempting—$15,000 in less than eight hours. Without thinking twice, he said yes; that was more than double what he earned for a typical coast-to-coast delivery job. Plus, Karla and Abelardo had promised him there wouldn’t be any trouble with the immigration-service inspections.

The truck didn’t come to a full stop anywhere in the checkpoint area. The photographs of the truck as it passed through the checkpoint reveal at least one hole in its back side. Why wasn’t the truck inspected? Didn’t the holes raise any eyebrows? Were there enough employees on duty that night to properly inspect all the trucks and cars on the road at that hour? It seems obvious that the driver and the coyotes picked that particular route because they were confident the truck would not be inspected.

Alberto passed the time touching a scapular he had bought at the Basilica of Guadalupe, in Mexico City. “I put myself in the hands of the Virgin, so that she would give me the strength I needed to live through the hell I was in,” he remembers. Inside the container, the situation was getting worse by the minute. Alberto just couldn’t keep dry. “I would wipe the sweat off with my shirt and then wring it out,” he says. “And that very same moment, just as I finished wringing the shirt, I would have to wipe myself off and wring it again.”

Alberto ended up drinking his own sweat. Running his cupped hand across his chest, he gathered up a little bit of liquid in the center of his palm and drank it.

“I began to regret all the bad things I had done, so that God would forgive me,” he says. “You could hear lots of people talking, lots of people praying, almost everyone was asking God to forgive them.”

But even as Alberto confessed out loud, he kept on fighting. Through the holes in the back of the truck, he and Enrique began to signal to the other cars on the road. “We stuck our hands out. We threw clothing, shirts, baseball caps, everything we had,” Alberto says. “We shouted our lungs out through those holes.” Alberto and Enrique thought their signaling had gone unnoticed. But they were wrong.

Matías was not the only person who telephoned the police that night. In Kingsville, just north of the inspection booth in Sarita, a man noticed a truck with New York license plates just before midnight. Something was very wrong. He saw a hand waving what looked like a scarf or a bandanna through a hole in the back of the truck. That was enough to make him call the Kingsville Police Department. The operator took his call, but it was not handled as an emergency.

The Third Hour

ALBERTO BELIEVES that a car or a minivan was escorting the truck for almost the entire trip, because he kept seeing the same large lights from a vehicle that seemed to be following them. “A normal car would have reacted [to the signaling],” he says. “But the people in that car did not.”

Thanks to the sliver of light that entered through the holes in the back, Enrique could see a little bit of what was going on inside the trailer. What he saw was more terrifying than the earlier absolute darkness. “I saw everyone bathed in sweat,” he remembers. “The trailer was completely white from all the steam. It was like we were in a steam bath.”

Enrique’s eyes began to burn, and he felt certain he was about to die. “At one point, my vision got completely blurred. And then I saw something that looked like a person with his head all covered up. It was like a body covered in a white sheet. I thought I was going crazy. I thought I was dead, that all these things were part of the afterlife. But at the same time, I could still hear the other people in the truck talking. Then I felt as if someone was lifting me up off the floor, and suddenly I came back to my senses, and I realized I wasn’t dead.”

But some of his fellow passengers were indeed perishing from the lack of oxygen. “There were people lying on the floor, not moving at all,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine they were dead. I assumed they had fainted.”

A puddle of sweat had formed beneath José Reyes Arellano. Lots of people around him were on their feet, and he was getting soaked from their perspiration, which was dripping down on him. “Oh, God, I’m going to have to get up,” he said to himself. But the droplets that fell on his head did serve a purpose: They kept him alert and awake.

José had worked outdoors in the country and had performed many jobs that required tremendous physical effort, but he didn’t have much flexibility or muscle tone. Although he was still under fifty, illness and inadequate medical care had taken their toll. With great difficulty, he pulled himself up and leaned against the trailer wall.

As he began to walk, taking little steps, José realized that several people lying on the floor were no longer moving. “Get up, man! Why are you going to sleep?” he shouted at them with what little strength he had left. “Don’t go falling asleep!” But nobody seemed to pay him any mind.

José went back to his previous spot and sat down on the floor. He says he remembers hearing one man confess, “I drank my urine.” Suddenly, he heard a loud belly laugh that frightened him. At first he thought it was the sound of a little boy laughing, but it didn’t sound normal. “It sounded ugly,” he says. Later, José would admit that it was a sound he’d never forget, the most chilling sound of his life.

By then, breathing had become a serious challenge for everyone. Their nostrils would flutter open in a futile attempt to take in more air. This was followed by grunts and hoarse noises as they tried to exhale—the sound of their bodies struggling to keep their lungs open. Many of the immigrants felt themselves starting to lose consciousness.

Hyperthermia made them feel as if they had just depleted all their energy in an exhausting long-distance run. Most of them were terribly weak and their pulses barely perceptible. Still, disoriented and wobbly, several passengers pushed one another as they tried to feel their way toward the back of the truck in hopes of getting a tiny bit of air. Others had become delirious or had fallen into a coma.

One of the greatest mysteries of this tragedy is why none of the women died. There is no doubt that women have a higher pain threshold than men. But both male and female bodies are 70 percent liquid. What was it that helped the women survive while so many of the men perished? Was it their psychological response to danger? Were they physically stronger than the men? Were they better at storing their energy?

José has another, less rational explanation: The women survived because they immediately began to pray. Next to him, some Salvadoran women cried, “Glory to God! Hallelujah, we are going to be saved!”

José was not so sure that they were all going to be saved. Suddenly, he heard a man call out to the devil, which scared him even more: “Satan,” the man said, “I made a pact with you. But my God, if you let me [live], I promise I will serve you and only you.” Someone else sitting near him began to pray: “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

José is convinced that it was God who let him live. The policeman who had stolen his money in Reynosa had not taken the image of Saint James that he carried in his wallet. “Protect us! Protect us!” José prayed, almost shouting, as he patted his trousers in search of his wallet.

Israel Rivera Sánchez, José’s nephew, had taken the advice of his uncle and removed his shirt, but that didn’t stop him from sweating. “It was so heavy from sweat that it slipped out of my hands,” he says. “And the heat from everyone else, that suffocating feeling—it was unbearable.” His socks were soaking wet, and his boots felt “as if they were underwater.”

Hoping to stretch his legs, Israel tried to stand up, but it was hard to keep his balance, so he sat back down. That was when he realized that it was easier to breathe down by the floor, where he would tumble around and bang his hands against the trailer. Just like all the other immigrants, he was hoping the driver would hear the noise and open the doors. But all he got for his efforts was a bloody hand.

Sitting in the middle of the truck, Israel was able to see the back doors, thanks to the light filtering in through the tiny holes, but he was afraid to look too closely, because it seemed that near the doors was a pile of dead bodies, people who had tried to breathe through the holes. The effort had been too much for some of them.

“I saw death,” Israel declares, as tears threaten to spill from his eyes. “I saw it, very clearly. In the darkness, I saw a shadow pass by me. And I said, ‘The devil has taken over this truck.’ So many people cursing. So many people shouting all kinds of things to the devil, to Satan. I felt awful, really awful.” Israel tried to get up and move toward the back, but he was suddenly struck by the feeling that he too would die if he moved from where he was sitting. At some point, his energy depleted, he lost consciousness.

A few steps away from Israel, Alberto’s strength was dwindling. “I started to fall asleep now and then,” he says. “That was when I really got scared.” He prayed, “Lord, I think we are going to die. Forgive me if I have failed here.”

A group of women were busy praying as well. “As things began to get desperate, they all began to pray,” Alberto says. “I had never heard those songs before. They sang. They prayed. Instead of wasting their energy, they just prayed.”

Some of the passengers had begun to feel cramps in their extremities and a strange, uncomfortable sensation around their mouths. So much sweating had depleted their bodies of salt, and this, in part, was what had brought on the cramping. Because of the excessive heat, a rash of little blisters had broken out on their necks and hands. When they scratched at the rash, their fingernails turned black from the combination of sweat and damp skin cells. Their breathing rate continued to accelerate as their bodies reacted to the lack of oxygen. They couldn’t tell it in the darkness, but their skin had turned a pale grayish-blue.

The passengers’ feelings of despair only exacerbated their physical condition: When breathing quickens, the heart must work much harder than normal, at a level that is impossible to sustain for very long. If someone didn’t get them out of there soon, they were all going to die.

The intense collective body heat began to claim more victims. Several passengers’ bodies lost their ability to regulate their temperature, and this gave way to tremors, convulsions, swelling of the lungs, and, finally, death brought on by arrhythmia or heart failure.

There was no real way to tell who had died and who had just passed out. Because the bodies of the dead continued to give off a great deal of heat—106 degrees, maybe more—many of their fellow passengers did not realize that some around them had died. As they neared death, some of the immigrants twitched with muscle spasms, belched, and passed gas, and on occasion these functions continued for a few moments after death.

The difference between the living and the dead was a breath, a prayer, a monumental effort to keep the eyes open. Nobody was crying anymore; their bodies didn’t have enough liquid to form tears. Panic and anxiety attacks further worsened things for some of the immigrants, who might have survived had they been able to hang on to a bit more energy.

As all this was happening, the people who had managed to conserve their strength remained glued to the walls of the container. “¡Párate ya!” they screamed at the driver. “Stop now! Stop now!”

The survivors interviewed for this book say their banging efforts were loud and strenuous, and they find it difficult to believe that the truck driver did not hear them as they banged away and prayed and cried out to God—or, in their desperation, to the devil. Some passengers even tried to overturn the trailer by getting everyone who could to lean against one side of it at the same time. But the trailer didn’t budge, and the truck just continued on its way.

Walking around inside the trailer was not easy either. Several passengers say that the truck would sometimes stop short and then accelerate. These sudden movements may have been produced by the conditions on the road, but they also may have been the driver’s attempt to get them to stop leaning against the trailer walls.

The Final Hour

THERE IS NO WAY to know exactly how high the temperature rose inside the trailer, but the Associated Press, citing local authorities, suggested that it may have hit 173 degrees. After about three hours on the road, the passengers finally began to feel the air conditioning system kick in. Some of the survivors say they felt “a bit of air” waft across their bodies. But the remedy had arrived too late. A person suffering from a body temperature of more than 100 degrees would not have been able to recover with air conditioning alone. A high body temperature will not go down on its own for several hours. And time was running out.

Whistles seemed to echo through the air during this fourth hour of the journey. Who could possibly be whistling under these circumstances? Yet these were not normal, everyday whistles. They were the sharp, almost chirping sounds made by the passengers’ narrow, swollen windpipes as they breathed the air inside the truck.

A mixture of saliva and blood trickled from the mouths of some of the dead. Other passengers said they experienced intense stomach pains, which were followed by expulsions of saliva loaded with blood clots. Those who had survived were now facing the possibility of brain damage or acute kidney failure.

Then, after four hours on the road, the truck suddenly came to a stop. As he’d approached Victoria on U.S. 77, Tyrone Williams had apparently become aware that one of his taillights was dangling. Up ahead he saw a gas station and pulled over. It was the Speedy Stop Truck Stop.

As soon as he stepped down from the cab to examine the taillight, he heard people shouting and banging inside the truck.

Enrique could now see the driver through the hole he had made. “Who is it?” Alberto asked him. “A Mexican?”

“No,” Enrique answered. “A black man.”

“Open the door,” Alberto cried. “Open the door!”

Enrique tried speaking to the driver in rudimentary but straightforward English. He remembers looking at him and getting the feeling that he was going to unhook the truck container from the cab. Inside the trailer, the passengers continued to bang against the walls. Enrique heard the driver say that he was going to leave them there, and he’d given no indication that he was going to open the doors.

Enrique was distraught. “Excuse me, man,” he cried out in English. “No more water. The baby is die!”

“One guy died?” Tyrone asked.

“Yes, man. Guy die,” Enrique insisted, again in English. He told the driver that if he didn’t open the doors soon, they would all die and he would be in trouble with the law. “Open door, please. You no open the door maybe is die everybody in ten minutes, five minutes. You gotta problem with the police.”

“What?” Tyrone replied. “Guys are dying?”

At 1:55 a.m., Tyrone entered the gas station’s convenience store; a security camera caught him on tape as he approached the cash register to pay for twenty bottles of water.

He passed the bottles to the immigrants through the two holes in the truck. Some bottles exploded in the chaos, grabbed too tightly by too many anxious hands. Those who managed to get a bottle downed its contents in practically a single gulp.

Then Tyrone sent Fatima Holloway, an acquaintance of his who had accompanied him on the trip, to buy more water. She was captured by the convenience store’s surveillance cameras as she made a purchase. It was 2:03 in the morning.

Her movements indicated no sense of urgency as she walked back and forth between the counter and the shelves stocked with bottles of water. She emerged from the store with two white plastic bags and, as she would later testify, gave the water to Tyrone, who sent her back to buy more.

Then, four hours after leaving Harlingen, Tyrone pulled a lever and opened the container’s two doors.

He found himself staring at several people in the fetal position; that was when he first realized something was very, very wrong. He recalled hearing a woman cry out, “El niño, el niño,” over and over again. Tyrone does not speak Spanish, but he quickly made the connection between the woman’s cries and what Enrique had told him.

Enrique secured a bottle of water for Alberto and passed it to him.  “I drank a little and then hid it under my clothes, like it was my one and only treasure,” Alberto recalls. “There was a girl near me. I touched her neck; she was still breathing. I grabbed the bottle I had hidden and poured some water on her lips. Back then I had long hair, and she grabbed it, totally desperate, and refused to let go.

“I felt weak and said to myself, ‘I think I’m going to stay here a little bit.’ But then I got scared that they were going to close the doors again. I heard the truck make noises, as if it was about to take off. I got down right away, but the girl stayed where she was.”

Then, according to his own statements to investigators, a frightened Tyrone Williams disengaged the driver’s cab from the truck bed and fled the scene with Fatima Holloway. The trailer was left abandoned on the side of the road, as were the people inside.

From the book Dying to Cross: The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History, by Jorge Ramos, Copyright © 2005 by Jorge Ramos. Published by arrangement with Rayo, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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