Migrant reveals horror inside semi-truck and says driver wouldn’t stop
'They were crying, they couldn't breathe': First survivor of Texas semi-truck tragedy speaks out to reveal driver refused to stop when they told him they were dying and smugglers covered floor with chicken bouillon to throw off dogs at checkpoints
- Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomas, 20, survived the heat in a tractor-trailer last week after she decided to stay near the door
- She said it was already hot when she stepped out of the warehouse in Texas and climbed into the back of the trailer
- Others migrants in the truck started complaining of the excessive heat and asked the driver to stop, but he refused
- Fifty-three migrants from Guatemala were later found dead inside the truck
Published: 00:44, 5 July 2022 | Updated: 14:41, 5 July 2022
A 20-year-old survivor of a deadly voyage to the United States is speaking out about the brutal heat and deadly conditions she and nearly 100 other migrants faced before 53 were found dead inside a tractor-trailer outside of San Antonio, Texas.
Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomas, from Guatemala City, told the Associated Press on Monday that it was already hot on June 27 when she stepped out of a warehouse on the Texas side of the Mexico border where she had been waiting for the truck, and climbed into the back of the trailer.
The smugglers then confiscated her and the other migrants cellphones, and covered the trailer's floor with what she believes was powdered chicken bouillon, apparently to throw off any dogs they might encounter at checkpoints. Sitting stuffed inside the stifling trailer with dozens of others, the powder stung her skin.
Remembering her friend's advice about staying near the door where it would be cooler, Cardona Tomas shared it with another friend she had made during the journey.
'I told a friend that we shouldn't go to the back and should stay near [the entrance], in the same place without moving,' said Cardona Tomas, who is being treated at Methodist Hospital Metropolitan in San Antonio. Her friend also managed to survive.
But as the truck moved through Texas, making additional stops to pick up more migrants, people began to cluster near the door like Cardona Tomas, and she lost track of time.
'The people were yelling, some cried.
Mostly women were calling for it to stop and to open the doors because it was hot, that they couldn't breathe,' she said, still laboring a bit to speak after being intubated at the hospital.
She said the driver or someone else in the cab yelled back that 'we were about to arrive, that there were 20 minutes left, six minutes.
'People asked for water, some had run out, others carried some,' she said.
The truck would continue stopping occasionally, but just before she lost consciousness it was moving slowly. She woke up in the hospital.
Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomas, 20, of Guatemala City, survived a deadly trip to the United States after she decided to sit near the entrance to a tractor-trailer to stay cool
Cardona Tomas is now recovering at a hospital in San Antonio, Texas from heat damage after being stuck inside a tractor-trailer carrying nearly 100 migrants to the United States
Mynor Cardona, Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomas' father, said he did not know his daughter would be traveling in a tractor-trailer
Her parents said they did not know she would be traveling in a tractor-trailer, and spent days worrying about their daughter's fate after they found out that the truck was found abandoned outside of San Antonio - and 53 people died of heat exhaustion.
'She told us it would be by foot,' her father, Mynor Cordon, said. 'It seems like at the last moment the smugglers decided to put [her] in the trailer, along with two more friends, who survived. One of them is still in critical condition.'
Cordon said Cardona Tomas did not have a job when she left for the United States and asked him if he would support her financially.
He said he knew of other cases of children who just left without telling their families and ended up disappearing or dying so he decided to back her, paying £4,000 for a smuggler - less than half the total cost - to take her to the U.S.
She left Guatemala on May 30, traveling in cars, buses and finally the semi-trailer in Texas.
Meanwhile, Cordon had stayed in touch with his daughter up until the morning of June 27.
Her last message to him that Monday was at 10.28 am in Guatemala, or 11.28 am in Texas. 'We're going to go in an hour,' she wrote.
It was not until late that night that Cardona Tomas' family learned of the abandoned trailer. It was two more days before relatives in the United States confirmed that she was alive and hospitalized.
'We cried so much,' Cordon said. 'I even was thinking where we were going to have the wake and bury her. She is a miracle.'
Mynor Cardona and Ufemia Tomas, parents of Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomas, smile as they talk with her through a call to the hospital where she is being treated
An unanswered message where a question is read 'have you left Mija?' is seen on the cell phone of Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomas' father, Mynor Cardona
The truck Cardona Tomas was traveling in with nearly 100 other migrants was found that morning abandoned outside of San Antonio, where 53 people were pronounced dead from heat exhaustion.
The dead included 27 from Mexico, 14 from Honduras, seven from Guatemala and two from El Salvador, said Francisco Garduno, chief of Mexico's National Immigration Institute.
Guatemala's Foreign Ministry also said that 20 Guatemalans died in the incident, 16 of whom have been positively identified.
Foreign Minister Mario Bucaro said he hoped the first bodies would be repatriated this week.
Meanwhile, the driver, Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, was allegedly found 'very high on meth' and posing as one of the survivors after the tragedy that killed 53.
He was charged with one count of alien smuggling resulting in death, the Western District of Texas US Attorney's Office said, and could face the death penalty in Texas as a result.
Additionally, Christian Martinez, 28, was charged with conspiracy and allegedly communicated with Zamorano about transporting the migrants. He also faces the death penalty if convicted.
And alleged accomplices Juan Claudio D'Luna-Mendez, 23, and Juan Francisco D'Luna-Bilbao, 48, were both charged with possession of a weapon by an alien illegally in the US.
Martinez was arrested in East Texas and will be transported to San Antonio. Prosecutors say investigators found the other two men at a San Antonio address where the truck was registered.
The four men remained in custody as the investigation continued into the nation's deadliest smuggling episode on the US-Mexico border.
The driver, Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, is pictured smiling as he drives the tractor trailer loaded with immigrants through the US border
He reportedly posed as one of the victims, but was 'high on meth' before he was arrested
Christian Martinez, 28, is also accused of plotting the nation's deadliest human smuggling operation that claimed the lives of 53 migrants
Court documents revealed that Martinez told investigators how the truck driver was completely unaware that the air conditioning unit was not operating.
Temperatures in the San Antonio area of Texas were in the 90s and 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Inside the truck, it's estimated temperatures would have been closer to 150F.
'The refrigerator tractor-trailer had no visible working air conditioning unit, and there was no sign of water inside, San Antonio's fire chief Charles Hood said during a press conference.
'None of these people were able to extricate themselves out of the truck, so they were still in there, awaiting help, when we arrived ... meaning just being too weak -- weakened state -- to actually get out and help themselves,' he explained.
All the while, the men were messaging back and forth and exchanging pictures, one of which included the 'truck load manifest'.
The pair were also discussing whether Zamorano should go to the 'same spot,' along with some GPS coordinates that were of a destination in Laredo, Texas.
The documents claim that after Zamorano texted him to confirm the meetup, Martinez sent him an address to an industrial area just three miles from Mexico.
When Zamorano doesn't reply, Martinez allegedly texts him repeatedly to find out his whereabouts.
'Where are you bro,?' Martinez texts at 1:14 p.m., according to the complaint.
By 3:18 p.m., the documents claim Martinez texted, 'Call me bro, Yes, Call me bro.'
Martinez's final text, at 6:17 p.m., allegedly read, 'WYA?,' meaning, where you at?
It was during that time that Police said Zamorano abandoned 73 migrants in the truck by the roadside in San Antonio, leaving passersby to hear screaming inside the vehicle as they made the gruesome discovery.
'The floor of the trailer, it was completely covered in bodies,' San Antonio Police Chief William McManus later recounted to CNN.
'There were at least 10-plus bodies outside the trailer because when we arrived, when EMS arrived, we were trying to find people who were still alive.
'So we had to move bodies out of the trailer onto the ground.'
Emergency responder radio traffic posted to Broadcastify.com also revealed that one person on the scene requested help immediately, saying: 'I have too many bodies here.'
About 10 minutes later, another responder could be heard saying: 'We're going to need someone to process. Everyone on the scene, including my DI's are tied up with assisting.
'Got approximately 20-plus victims,' he said.
Dozens of people were found dead inside the tractor-trailer after it was found abandoned outside of San Antonio on June 27
Law enforcement is seen on the scene on June 27. They are now working to determine whether the truck had mechanical problems when it was abandoned
Cardona Tomas said the truck's destination that day was Houston, though she was ultimately headed to North Carolina.
The truck went through a Border Patrol checkpoint northeast of Laredo on Interstate 35 on Monday, US Rep. Henry Cuellar and Mexican officials confirmed.
It was registered in Alamo, Texas, but had fake plates and logos, Garduno said.
Officials in Mexico also released a surveillance photo showing the driver smiling at the checkpoint during the more than two-hour trip to San Antonio.
And while it is not clear when or where the migrants boarded the truck bound for San Antonio, Homeland Security investigators believe it was on US soil, near or in Laredo, Texas, US Rep. Henry Cuellar said.
People visited and commemorated the victims of the deadly migrant voyage on June 29
Magdalena Tepaz and Maria Sipac Coj, mothers of 14-year-old Juan Wilmer Tulul Tepaz and 13 year-old Pascual Melvin Guachiac, cousins who died along with other migrants in San Antonio, Texas, U.S., hold pictures of their sons in a community house at the small village of Tzucubal, in Nahuala, Guatemala
Youngster Alfonso holds a picture of 13-year-old victim Pascual Melvin Guachiac
Some of the more than a dozen people transported to hospitals were found suffering from brain damage and internal bleeding, according to Ruben Minutti, the Mexico consul general in San Antonio.
Migrants typically pay £8,000 to £10,000 to be taken across the border, loaded into a tractor-trailer and driven to San Antonio, where they transfer to smaller vehicles for their final destinations across the United States, said Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio.
The death count from Monday's tragedy in San Antonio was the highest ever from a smuggling attempt in the US, he said. Four years ago, 10 died in 2017 after being trapped inside a truck parked at a San Antonio Walmart.
In 2003, the bodies of 19 migrants were found in a sweltering truck southeast of the city.
Temperatures in San Antonio on June 27 approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and those taken to the hospital were hot to the touch and dehydrated, authorities said.
It wouldn't have taken long for the temperature inside the truck to become deadly, said Jennifer Vanos, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who has researched child deaths in hot vehicles.
But with little information about the victims, desperate families from Mexico and Central America frantically sought word of their loved ones.
Felicitos Garcia, who owns a grocery store in the remote community of San Miguel Huautla in Mexico's southern state of Oaxaca, said the mother of Vasquez Guzman, who was hospitalized in Texas, had gone to the state capital to learn more about her son's condition and the whereabouts of his cousin, who is missing.
'Life is tough here,' Garcia said. 'People survive by growing their own crops like corn, beans and wheat. Sometimes the land gives and sometimes it doesn't when the rains arrive late. There is nothing in place for people to have other resources.
People live one day to the next.'
Identifying the victims was painstaking because among the pitfalls were fake or stolen documents.
Mexico's foreign affairs secretary identified two people who were hospitalized in San Antonio. But it turned out one of the identification cards he shared on Twitter had been stolen last year in the southern state of Chiapas.
Haneydi Antonio Guzman, 23, was safe in a mountain community more than 1,300 miles away from San Antonio when she began receiving messages from family and friends anxious over her fate.
'That's me on the ID, but I am not the person that was in the trailer and they say is hospitalized,' Antonio Guzman said. 'My relatives were contacting me worried, asking where I was.'
The Honduran government on Wednesday named brothers Fernando Jose Redondo Caballero (left) and Alejandro Miguel Andino Caballero (right) among the deceased
Adela Betulia Ramirez Quezada, and Margie Tamara Paz Grajera, both of Honduras, were named among the deceased
Sisters Carla and Griselda Carac-Tambriz, of Guatemala, were among the 53 migrants left to die in an abandoned semi-truck trailer in the sweltering Texas heat
The tragedy occurred at a time when huge numbers of migrants have been coming to the US, many of them taking perilous risks to cross swift rivers and canals and scorching desert landscapes.
Migrants were stopped nearly 240,000 times in May, up by one-third from a year ago.
Many say the migrants are driven by the lack of opportunities in their home countries in Central America, and a report released in May by the Honduran Council for Private Enterprise showed that 13.2 percent people between the ages of 15 and 29 were unemployed in the country in 2021. Figures for 2022 were not provided.
Karen Caballero even told Honduran television station HCH that her sons Fernando Redondo (19) and Alejandro Andino (22), and Andino's partner Margie Paz (20), died in the tractor-trailer because they were searching for a better life in the United States.
She said they left their hometown in the western city of Las Vegas for the United States on June 4 in search of a better life because companies back home overlooked them every time they applied for employment.
'We are suffering because when they left the house. We never, never imagined that something like this would happen.
Never, never,' the mourning mother said.
According to Caballero, Andino was six courses away from graduating with a marketing degree, and Paz had a degree in economics.
'They were never able to find a job here in Honduras despite the fact that my son was always called by good companies, no one ever wanted to offer him a job because they always told him that they had no experience,' Caballero said.
'It is sad to see that young people who have prepared themselves with the sacrifice of their family never have the opportunity to stand out in a country as it is.'
'Let the young have opportunities. They deserve it. My son deserved it.
My daughter-in-law deserved it.
And nobody in any company gave them the opportunity,' Caballero said.
'They were dreaming as a couple because my son's first girlfriend is here ...
They had dreams, they had goals and they were not going to be fulfilled here.'Read more: