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When tragedy came to Victoria

By Gabe Semenza
May 14, 2009 at 12:14 a.m.
Updated May 13, 2009 at 12:13 a.m.

Jesse Porras, 75, says the May 2003 tragedy was the worst event he's ever witnessed. Thursday is the tragedy's sixth anniversary.

Ceremonies held to remember the May 2003 illegal immigration tragedy will be at the tragedy's makeshift memorial, which is near the intersection of Fleming Prairie Road and U.S. Highway 77 South.

The ceremonies are:

Thursday from 11 a.m. to noon. Houston's Immigrant Association for Equality will hold a prayer service and place 19 crosses, each with the name of an immigrant who died during the trip.

Saturday from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m., the The Rev. Stan DeBoe of Our Lady of Sorrows will speak at 11:45 a.m. From noon to 1 p.m., members of regional Hispanic-rights groups will reflect on the tragedy's meaning and on those who died during the trip.

Fatal FunnelTo learn never-before-told details about what happened inside the trailer in May 2003, read the next installment of the Fatal Funnel on Sunday, May 24.

Few places in Victoria County invoke so much emotion.

For some, the makeshift memorial spurs tears. For others, the spot inflames anti-immigration sentiment.

For Jesse Porras, the ground awakens a painful memory.

Six years ago today, Porras witnessed the gruesome aftermath of the worst botched human smuggling attempt in U.S. history.

"That's where the guy left the trailer with all those dead people," the 75-year-old said Wednesday, pointing to the makeshift memorial. "I couldn't believe what was going on."

On May 13, 2003, smugglers stuffed at least 74 illegal immigrants into a sealed tractor-trailer. The trip began in Harlingen.

In the early morning hours of May 14, 2003, the tractor-trailer driver ditched the trailer in south Victoria County. He left it outside the convenience store on Fleming Prairie Road near U.S. Highway 77 South.

The driver panicked when he learned many inside had died.

Today is the tragedy's sixth anniversary. The day marks the death of 19 illegal immigrants, each who died from the trailer's 170-degree heat and lack of air.

Porras, a convenience store maintenance employee then and now, arrived for work that day as emergency responders pulled rigid bodies to the ground.

"A terrible thing," he said.

Amid the commotion of police cars, big-city news satellite trucks and helicopters, Porras thought about the 30 years in which he worked for the state of Texas. He'd seen horrific wrecks, bodies ripped to pieces.

"But this tragedy was the worst I've seen," he said.

Porras finished discussing the tragedy from six years ago. He returned Wednesday afternoon to the convenience store to resume work.

Across the street, a sign planted in a ditch honors those who died. Forty-nine water jugs, wooden crosses and stuffed animals show Porras isn't the only person who remembers.

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