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Community remembers 19 who died trapped in sweltering trailer

By JR Ortega
May 17, 2014 at 12:17 a.m.
Updated May 18, 2014 at 12:18 a.m.

People pray at Spanish Mass held for 19 who died in May 2003 in an overheated tractor-trailer.

Alfredo Lopez slowly scuffled down the cracked asphalt of Fleming Prairie Road.

He drives the stretch of U.S. Highway 77 nearby often, always making sure to remember the 19 people suspected of entering the country illegally found dead in a sweltering tractor-trailer in May 2003.

On Saturday, that drive down the long highway was different. Lopez, of Houston, noticed people at the memorial site - heads down in prayer. He decided to join them.

They prayed solemnly during a Spanish Mass - all the while staring at the ceramic and wooden crosses stabbed into the dry earth on the shoulder of Fleming Prairie.

But Lopez is not just another one of thousands of motorists who drive down the highway every day. He has a first-hand connection.

When the deaths occurred, Lopez worked at Compean Funeral Home in Houston, where a majority of the 19 were taken.

"It was hard," he said. "It changed how I lived my life."

The Rev. Alfonso Serna of Our Lady of Sorrows lead the Mass. Serna also has a personal connection. He was there the day the 19 were found.

He spoke a little about what that day must have been like for the imigrants. His reflection of what may have transpired in that 170-degree trailer was enough to bring raw reaction from some at the Mass.

"Apa, apa, me estoy muriendo," Serna said, imagining what the youngest of the dead, a 5-year-old, must have said. "Daddy, Daddy, I'm dying."

Serna went on to a prayer, reminding everyone how everyone needs to be united and unified.

"We are different people. Different in color. Different in thinking," he said in Spanish. "We are divine creation."

The group of about 20 people stood silent, listening to every word.

To date, only one family makes it out to the memorial every year. And even then, the attendance has dwindled some.

Dora Torres, along with her daughter, have made it a point to come to the memorial Mass every year. Torres lost her 15-year-old son that day.

The two stood by the road, staring at a wooden cross, holding a photo of their beloved Jorge Mauricio Torres Herrera.

Though difficult for him to attend, Lopez was glad to have stumbled upon a memorial Mass 11 years later.

Still, he is left with a sense of sadness.

"There should be more people here," he said.

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