Never before had so many illegal immigrants died in one tragedy on American soil.
Rick Streeter was one of the first to witness the aftermath.
“I just remember the bodies,” Streeter said on Wednesday, pausing, “just scattered everywhere in the truck. We just tried to move the dead ones to find the living ones.”
It’s these images, shared by the Quail Creek volunteer firefighter and others, that resonate five years after the worst immigration tragedy in U.S. history.
It’s partially why we feel compelled to begin retelling the story in full starting in May.
On May 13, 2003, at least 73 illegal immigrants – including 5-year-old Marco Antonio – piled into a semi truck trailer.
For some, the journey began in Mexico. But for others, it began in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.
Like so many others, this group illegally entered the country in seek of a better life.
The group met human smugglers in Harlingen, this side of Mexico.
But what started in Harlingen as a trip of hope ended just miles south of Victoria in a horrific disaster.
The death of 19 of these immigrants changed Texas – and the U.S. political landscape – forever.
Just as they clawed for a better life here, passengers inside the trailer – sealed off from fresh air – clawed at the semi’s walls, began suffocating and cooking from the 173-degree Fahrenheit heat.
The late Michael Shelby was the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas who first prosecuted the smugglers.
“That’s one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in my life,” he told the Advocate in May 2003. “This had to be one of the most panicked and terrifying ways that human beings can suffer before they die: in the pitch black darkness of extraordinary heat with all those people around you while you suffocate.”
To retell this story, the Advocate will revisit those who were there to witness the tragedy, those who survived, those who prosecuted the criminals and the family members who lost a loved one that day.
And we’re asking for your help. To retell this story, we’re soliciting your memories. What did you see? Do you know if any survivors are still in the Crossroads?
To offer you a roadmap of our plans, here is a very brief list of stories we’re attempting to cover:
- First responder accounts.
- Witness accounts.
- Law enforcement accounts.
- Interviews with the survivors.
- Interviews with family members who lost a loved one.
- An interview with Tyrone Williams, the semi-truck driver who was sentenced to life in prison.
- What have we learned since that tragedy?
- In what ways did that tragedy propel immigration into the international spotlight, and how, if at all, has it affected U.S. law?
We’re open to your suggestions, too.
I'll update you on what I learn. Please do the same.
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