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Survivor recalls horrific scene inside tractor-trailer in Texas human smuggling case

Sweating profusely in the rising oven-like heat of the tractor-trailer, passengers started crying and pleading for water. Children whimpered. People took turns breathing through a single hole in the wall.

Truck driver James Matthew Bradley's commercial driving privileges had been suspended months ago

A bottle of water, flowers, candles, and stuffed animals form a makeshift memorial in the parking lot of a Walmart store near where authorities discovered a tractor-trailer packed with immigrants in San Antonio Monday. Ten people died in what is described as an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone wrong. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

The tractor-trailer was pitch-black inside, crammed with maybe 90 immigrants or more, and already hot when it left the Texas border town of Laredo for the 240-kilometre trip north to San Antonio.

It wasn't long before the passengers, sweating profusely in the rising oven-like heat, started crying and pleading for water. Children whimpered. People took turns breathing through a single hole in the wall. They pounded on the sides of the truck and yelled to try to get the driver's attention. Then they began passing out.

By the time police showed up at a Walmart in San Antonio around 12:30 a.m. Sunday and looked in the back of the truck, eight passengers were dead and two more would soon die in an immigrant-smuggling attempt gone tragically awry.

The details of the journey were recounted Monday by a survivor who spoke to The Associated Press and in a federal criminal complaint against the driver, James Matthew Bradley, who could face the death penalty over the 10 lives lost.

"After an hour I heard … people crying and asking for water. I, too, was sweating and people were despairing. That's when I lost consciousness," Adan Lara Vega, 27, told the AP from his hospital bed. By the time he came to, he was in the hospital, where his ID bracelet identified him by the last name Lalravega. Mexican consulate and U.S. officials later told AP the correct spelling was Lara Vega.

Bradley, 60, of Clearwater, Fla., appeared in federal court on charges of illegally transporting immigrants for financial gain, resulting in death. He was ordered held for another hearing on Thursday.

Eldia Contreras wipes away a tear as she takes part in a vigil at San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, for victims who died as a result of being transported in a tractor-trailer Sunday. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

He did not enter a plea or say anything about what happened. But in court papers, he told authorities he didn't realize anyone was inside his 18-wheeler until he parked and got out to relieve himself.

On Tuesday it was revealed the state of Florida had suspended his commercial driving privileges three months before he was arrested.

Alexis Bakofsky, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, confirmed that the agency disqualified Bradley's commercial driving privileges in April when he failed to file an updated medical card. Federal law requires commercial drivers supply the card to show they are physically fit for the road.

Bradley's driving record shows he was issued a commercial driver's license in Florida in 2004. Bakofsky also says it would have been illegal for him to have held a second license from another state.

Dehydration, heatstroke

In addition to the dead, nearly 20 others rescued from the rig were hospitalized in dire condition, many suffering from extreme dehydration and heatstroke.

Mexico's foreign ministry released a statement Monday night that said "according to preliminary information," 25 of the migrants inside the rig were Mexican.

Four of those who died and 21 of those hospitalized were Mexican, the statement said. Some of the others inside the truck were from Guatemala.

James Mathew Bradley Jr., 60, of Clearwater, Fla,, left, is escorted out of the federal courthouse after a hearing Monday in San Antonio, Texas. Bradley was arrested in the deaths of multiple people packed into a broiling tractor-trailer. (Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Many of the immigrants had hired smugglers who brought them across the U.S. border, hid them in safe houses and then put them aboard the tractor-trailer for the ride northward, according to accounts given to investigators.

"Even though they have the driver in custody, I can guarantee you there's going to be many more people we're looking for to prosecute," said Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Bradley told investigators that the trailer had been sold and he was transporting it for his boss from Iowa to Brownsville, Texas. After hearing banging and shaking, he opened the door and was "surprised when he was run over by 'Spanish' people and knocked to the ground," according to the criminal complaint.

I'm absolutely sorry it happened. I really am. It's shocking. I'm sorry my name was on it.- Brian Pyle, truck seller

He said he did not call 911, even though he knew at least one passenger was dead.

Bradley told authorities that he knew the trailer refrigeration system didn't work and that the four ventilation holes were probably clogged.

The truck was registered to Pyle Transportation Inc. of Schaller, Iowa. President Brian Pyle said that he had sold the truck to someone in Mexico and that Bradley was supposed to deliver it to a pick-up point in Brownsville.

A San Antonio police officer clears crime scene barrier tape on Sunday near where the truck was found. (Darren Abate/EPA)

"I'm absolutely sorry it happened. I really am. It's shocking. I'm sorry my name was on it," Pyle said, referring to the truck. He said he had no idea why Bradley took the roundabout route he described to investigators.

Bradley told authorities that he had stopped in Laredo — which would have been out of his way if he were travelling directly to Brownsville — to get the truck washed and detailed before heading back 240 kilometres north to San Antonio. From there, he would have had to drive 440 kilometres south again to get to Brownsville.

"I just can't believe it. I'm stunned, shocked. He is too good a person to do anything like this," said Bradley's fiancee, Darnisha Rose of Louisville, Ky. "He helps people, he doesn't hurt people."

One passenger described a perilous journey that began in Mexico, telling investigators he and others crossed into the U.S. by raft, paying smugglers 12,500 Mexican pesos (about $700 US), an amount that also bought protection offered by the Zeta drug cartel.

A person makes decisions without thinking through the consequences.- Survivor Adan Lara Vega, 27

They then walked until the next day and rode in a pickup truck to Laredo, where they were put aboard the tractor-trailer to be taken to San Antonio, according to the complaint. The passenger said he was supposed to pay the smugglers $5,500 once he got there.

Another passenger told authorities that he was in a group of 24 people who had been in a "stash house" in Laredo for 11 days before being taken to the tractor-trailer.

Lara Vega told the AP that he was told by smugglers who hid him and six friends in a safe house in Laredo that they would be riding in an air-conditioned space.

The Mexican labourer from the state of Aguascalientes said that when they boarded the truck on a Laredo street Saturday night for the two-hour trip to San Antonio, it was already full of people but so dark he couldn't tell how many.

He said he was never offered water and never saw the driver. Lara Vega said that when people are being smuggled, they are told not to look at the faces of their handlers — and it's a good idea to obey.

A medical examiner's vehicle parked near the truck, which was found in a Walmart parking lot. It was a store employee who alerted police after they were approached by someone from the truck who asked for water. (CNN)

Bradley told authorities that when he arrived in San Antonio, nobody met the tractor-trailer. But one passenger said six black SUVs were waiting to pick up the immigrants and were full in a matter of minutes. And San Antonio police said store surveillance video showed vehicles picking up some of the immigrants.

Lara Vega said he was deported from the U.S. three years ago but decided to take another chance because the economy is depressed where he lives with his wife, four-year-old daughter and three-year-old son.

"A person makes decisions without thinking through the consequences," he said, "but, well, thanks to God, here we are."

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