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Goliad massacre on 59 recalled (911 call/video)

By Jennifer Lee Preyss
July 20, 2013 at 2:20 a.m.

A Bible opened up to Psalm 22 is nailed to the tree where a pickup truck carrying 23 immigrants crashed in July 2012, killing 15.

BERCLAIR - Dusk neared as a 26-year-old pipeline surveyor stared out the window and leaned against the passenger seat headrest.

His co-worker was at the wheel of a 2011 Chevrolet Silverado. The men were Victoria-bound along U.S. Highway 59.

It had been an exhausting Sunday shift, working almost 10 hours outside of Three Rivers.

It's common to work long shifts on Sundays. Theirs is a typical oil-field schedule - 10 days on, four days off.

They were almost to Goliad, near Berclair, when a horror that still haunts them a year later happened.

It was 6:14 p.m. Sunday, July 22, 2012 - the night a pickup carrying 23 immigrants smuggled from Mexico and Guatemala smashed into a two-trunked tree.

Only eight survived, making it the worst single-passenger vehicle crash the state and federal officers involved in the case can remember.

The 911 call

"Oh my God," the surveyor's co-worker yelled, sitting up wide-eyed and gazing into the rearview mirror. "Did you see that?"

The white Ford F-250 traveling behind them on the same highway blew a tire and veered off the road, hitting a tree. A large dust cloud of debris and dirt flew behind them.

"Turn around," the surveyor implored the driver, grabbing his cellphone to dial 911.

The driver made a quick U-turn and sped to the scene of the crash.

As they encountered the accident, the surveyor reached Goliad County emergency dispatch.

He spoke to the Advocate on the condition of anonymity, reluctant to exploit the survivors or speak out of turn about the deceased. It is their story, not his, he said.

The surveyor's account of the wreck was the first to be recorded on a 911 call to Goliad emergency dispatch.

His shock was captured on the recording when he realized the one-vehicle accident he witnessed was a mass fatality.

Surveyor: Oh my God. There's people laying all over the road.

911: OK, how many people are laying in the road?

Surveyor: I see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 people laying in the highway.

After an exchange of personal information, the dispatcher signaled law enforcement to respond to the crash scene.

911: OK, let me get someone en route there. Can you tell me what kind of injuries there are?

Surveyor: I don't know. There are a lot of injuries. Nobody is getting up. They're all laying down.

911: No one is getting up?

Surveyor: No.

911: And they're blocking the roadway?

Surveyor: Yes.

The accident scene

The pipeliners jumped out of their truck and wondered, "What do I do?"

Other passers-by were pulling over to investigate the wreck and assist the injured.

The surveyor said he never exchanged names or much dialogue with any of the kind strangers.

"It was a graphic deal. I was just standing back. I'm not a doctor, and I wasn't sure what to do," the surveyor said.

As he stood on the side of the highway waiting for emergency crews to respond, he heard the faint whimpers of survivors in pain.

His instincts alerted him that he might be witnessing a human smuggling crime gone terribly wrong.

"I'm not racist, but the amount of people in the truck wasn't normal. And then none of them were speaking English," he said.

Many of the bodies, both living and deceased, were scattered in the ditch and on the roadway after they were ejected from the truck.

"I heard a few of them say, 'agua.' They wanted water," he said. "It was still light outside, but it was summertime. It was hot. The sun was blazing."

The six passengers riding inside the cab died on impact, including 17-year-old Juana Tiniguar-Aguilar and 15-year-old Manuela Salvador-Suar, both of Guatemala. The girls were small framed and positioned on the floorboard of the back seat.

The surveyor never saw their faces or made an attempt to get a glimpse of the other four smashed bodies lodged inside the cabin.

The passengers

Ricardo Mendoza-Pineda, 22, of Mexico, was driving the 2000 Ford F-250 the night of the wreck. He was one of two Mexicans in the vehicle. Rodolfo Duenas-Vasquez, 39, was the other Mexican national and was sitting in the front right passenger seat. Both men died inside the cab when the vehicle struck the tree.

The remaining passengers were Guatemalan.

Juana and Manuela were in the center of the back seat. Loenel Tipaz-DeLeon, 22, was in the back right seat, and Enrique Humberto Solis-Tumux, 15, was stashed in cargo. Their bodies were crushed when the engine was thrust inside the cabin, smashing the bodies together and, in some cases, breaking off limbs.

Manuel Zuniga-Lemus, 45; Victor Tomas Pablo-Jorge, 17; Domingo Ramos-Pol, 24; Agustin Solis-Lopes, 32, and Angel Guarcas-Pablo, 28, were riding in unknown positions in the truck's bed. They were ejected from the vehicle and died at the scene.

Maria Dominga Curruchich-Jiatz, 22; Diego Maydoqueo Tipaz-Jorge, 16; Juan Mejia-Morales, 27, and Miguel Macario-Cuino, 20, were in the bed of the truck, too. They were ejected but survived the initial impact and were transported to area hospitals.

Diego was flown to University Hospital in San Antonio and died late Sunday. Curruchich-Jiatz was flown to Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital in Corpus Christi. She also died later that day. Mejia-Morales died the following day at Christus Spohn. Macario-Cuino died two days later at DeTar Hospital in Victoria.

Eight passengers traveling in the bed of the truck escaped death: Amilcar Pol-Panho, 17; Jose Morales-Zavala, 18; Rocael Gonzalez-Diaz, 33; Mario Pango-Tol, 16; Cesar Tuquiz-Pablo, 16; Miguel Lares-Zetina, 21; Miguel Geronimo Cabrera-Marroquin, 22, and Tomas Zapeda-Chumil, 29.

Gregory Palmore of the Office of Public Affairs-U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the minors were treated at hospitals and released to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement under the Department of Justice.

The remaining adults were treated and released. They have since been deported to Guatemala.

A crash report released last year by the Department of Public Safety states the cause of the wreck was directly related to the number of occupants in the truck. The vehicle, meant to transport four or five passengers, was carrying 23 occupants, which caused the tread on the front right tire to separate. The truck was unable to sustain the weight.

When the tire de-treaded, the truck veered from the left highway lane into the right lane and ran off the road into a tree about 3 miles south of Farm-to-Market Road 1351 on U.S. Highway 59. Mendoza-Pineda was driving about 70 miles per hour.

Because the wreck involved criminal human smuggling, which is often linked to organized crime and gang activity in both Texas and Mexico, state and federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Public Safety, still classify the wreck as under investigation, even a year later.

Mendoza-Pineda and Duenas-Vasquez are suspected to be the coyotes responsible for packing the vehicle, but Homeland Security officials in the Houston and Corpus Christi offices said they were likely working for a vast and intricate crime ring.

Had Mendoza-Pineda survived, he would have been facing charges of smuggling that results in bodily injury and death. He would have been incarcerated with a maximum sentence of execution. Corresponding state charges may have followed.

A federal case

When William Rusche, Homeland Security Investigations special agent-Corpus Christi, arrived on scene, the survivors of the wreck had already been transported.

The deceased, those lying in the highway, had been covered with sheets.

Bodies inside the cab were in the process of being removed.

Rusche's objective was to collect evidence, take photos and start the process of identifying the passengers. Fingerprints were taken and sent to a lab and area consulates to see if any positive identifications came back.

A few of the fingerprints, which may have been in the system for being repeat offenders of illegal border passage, came back with positive identifications. Others would take months to identify.

Mendoza-Pineda and Duenas-Vasquez were the only ones carrying identification.

Rusche said identifications of the smuggled are often confiscated by coyotes at the initial checkpoint, along with cellphones and other personal belongings, to instill fear, terrorize their passengers, assign authority and ensure payment at the end of the journey.

Rusche said he and about eight other agents worked "nonstop" on the case for the next three weeks.

"We pretty much put away everything we had, and this became our main focus," he said. "Experience tells me they're going to move bodies and move the vehicle, so we have to act quickly."

Rusche said he still recalls the scene and remembers Manuela's face. Her small frame underestimated her age. He thought she was much younger, and he immediately thought of his own children.

"It was pretty bad. There are some visions that I can still see of the face of the young girl who was smashed like an accordion," he said. "Being a father, I think that's why I think about that little girl because she was someone's daughter. I still have that vision of the little girl."

Identifying passengers became Rusche's main focus, which included collecting statements from survivors.

No one was able to make statements for many days because of the seriousness of the injuries. And his team was simultaneously working with the consulates to connect with family members of the passengers.

Rusche, a former firefighter, had experienced tragedy and death on assignments before. But for him, this was the worst in his career.

The special agent said he has never seen such a high number of fatalities from a standard pickup truck like the one Mendoza-Pineda was driving.

"I can picture all the bodies. It's beyond words. It's something I hope I never see again, put it that way," he said. "It's the worst I've seen."

Brian Moskowitz, special agent in charge, Homeland Security Investigations-Houston, said he thinks this is the worst single-vehicle accident involving a standard passenger vehicle in Texas history.

"I've seen nothing to counter that. I hate to say that as an absolute fact because we don't always see what happens in other places, but as far as our collective memories go, we can't think of anything worse."

Moskowitz explained the intricacies of human smuggling are complicated and often involve elements of many other crimes. The smuggled are most often coming from Central America, he said, mentioning high numbers of illegal immigrants crossing the border from El Salvador.

The crime organizers of human smuggling are multinational, with people working on the ground in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and other nations assembling people daily who are interested in crossing the Mexico-Texas border.

Many of those who agree to be smuggled pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to travel from their home country to Mexico. They travel for days before they ever arrive in Mexico and are in many cases dehydrated, hungry and exhausted by the time they arrive at the Mexico-Texas border - only to be held captive and shoved into a vehicle for another six to nine hours.

"Human smugglers don't have the interest of the people that they're smuggling as their primary concern. It's perceived to be low-risk, high-reward. They don't care about safety, comfort; they're going to get them from point A to point B in the most economical, risk-free - to them - as possible. And if that means cramming 23 people into a truck designed for four, so be it," Moskowitz said. "People need to understand they put their lives and the lives of those they care about in the hands of a smuggler."

Crimes for human smuggling have lower sentences than other contraband smuggling, Moskowitz said. So there's more risk to smuggle drugs or weapons than people.

In Texas, the agents said, the common smuggling routes are along U.S. Highways 77, 59, 281, 83 and 44, and smuggling typically involves white pickup trucks that will blend in on the highways.

At any cost, coyotes will bypass checkpoints by using farm-to-market or county roads before getting on the major thoroughfares.

If they reach their end destination, those smuggled into the United States will often be reunited with family or be released after payment.

But in many cases, some passengers will be held for ransom, sold into slave labor and, for the children and women, sold into sex trafficking.

Others, however, will not survive the journey.

"Do we understand why people do it? Yes," Moskowitz said, explaining the economic conditions of impoverished Central America. "But I don't know that they fully understand the actual risk they're putting themselves in. But they're making the determination that it's worth it. Clearly, a case like this shows that it's not."

That's why Homeland Security agents are working to dismantle and investigate crime organizers on a greater scale. If they can take down the leaders, they can begin to dismantle smaller operations, they said.

"Our job is to take down these organizations that do this type of thing, that transport these people. So it makes me want to work that much harder at my job to stop these people from sending 23 people in a truck that ends up crashing and killing," Rusche said. "That's why we're here - to defeat these organizations that do this."

Goliad's response

Goliad County Sheriff Capt. Tom Copeland arrived about 15 minutes after the surveyor called in the wreck to 911.

He remembers "the shoes sticking out of the vehicle, counting the bodies by counting the shoes that were sticking out of the cab of the truck," he said.

And he recalls "the desire to catch the mules because of their greed. I guess (I was angry) at the greediness of people that would go to that extreme."

Goliad County Judge David Bowman was called to the scene just after 7 p.m.

He remembers arriving and seeing the bodies covered with yellow and blue covers.

Bowman's job that night was to declare the deceased dead.

"Really, the biggest impact on me was when they were removing the people from the vehicle and they pulled out that little girl," he said, remembering Manuela's pink shirt, rhinestone belt and cowboy boots. "I don't think you ever forget something like this."

Sheriff Kirby Brumby, who was out of town at a conference that day, applauded the men and women who cleared the scene the night of the wreck and said the general public will never really know what first responders must endure when responding to fatality scenes.

"We don't really want people to know what we have to endure," he said. "It's war time. And with this wreck, with all those bodies slung across the road and on the road and in the trees, oh Lord, no - because it would also affect them."

A year later

Driving home from the wreck, the surveyor and his co-worker chatted lightly about the wreck.

They had stayed on scene long enough to fill out some paperwork, but with the scene now fully secured by law enforcement and emergency teams, they were relieved from the site.

The sun was still out, but it was starting to set.

"I think he shared the same opinion I did," the surveyor said about his conversation with his co-worker on the way home. "That kind of wreck, it was pretty much a massacre."

Since he returns to South Texas for work and travels U.S. 59 a few times during the year, he said he's seen the memorial site on the two-trunked tree grow with flowers and notes from those who mourned the deceased.

He's never stopped to take a close-up look, but he's come to appreciate the kind thoughts of all who've left their well-wishes on the side of the tree where so many died.

"I've seen the memorial several times, and I've seen the flowers," he said. "It's nice that people will do that for people they don't even know."

Follow the Advocate's coverage of this story with the links below:

'Nobody deserves to die ...'

Death of 14 illegal immigrants a bipartisan tragedy

DPS trooper ranks Goliad wreck as deadliest in his 38-year career

Death toll in Goliad crash rises to 15

Community prays for Goliad County crash victims (video)

DPS releases 21 identities of 23 Goliad wreck victims

Goliad fatalities stir immigration reform conversation

Communities work together to aid, clean up Goliad fatal crash

Crosses mark memorial to illegal immigrants killed

Revelations: Sin nombre, reflections on the Goliad wreck that killed 15, injured eight



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