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When tragedy came to Victoria

Gabe Semenza

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.

Jesse Porras, 75, says the May 2003 tragedy was the worst event he's ever witnessed. Thursday is the tragedy's sixth anniversary.   Gabe Semenza for The Victoria Advocate

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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