“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.

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,

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