10 years later, horror of deadly immigrant smuggle still etched in minds Victoria first responders


On May 14, 2003, dozens of undocumented immigrants stepped into a tractor trailer grasping for a piece of the American dream, only to die inside gasping for air.

You can't be blamed for wanting to forget all of that. But Victoria County Deputy Henry Castillo just can't. It's not that simple.

"He was just laying there," Castillo said. "It will always be there."

He was one of the first sheriff's deputies to arrive at that rest stop on Highway 59 outside Victoria. The driver abandoned that truck when he heard the screams of the dying inside. Nineteen died that day; dozens more survived.

Castillo's never talked about what he saw.

"It happened, and that's a part of life," he said.

That day, he stood just feet away from the feet of dead immigrants lying in the back of that trailer. He doesn't necessarily need photographs to remember the details.

"It's been a long time since I've seen them," Castillo said.

But he stopped on one. It was something he saw that day but we never did -- the body of a five-year-old boy who died in his daddy's arms, at the edge of that trailer reaching to reach his father's dream.

"He had no idea what was going on, other than he couldn't breathe. Why was he on the trailer, where was he going -- he had no idea. He was looking to his dad for help and his dad was trying to give him what he had and it just wasn't enough," Castillo said.

"It was not a good sight," former emergency room employee Mary Rose Garcia said. "Some of them were convulsing really bad."

Garcia was there that day too, in the ER when survivors showed up.

"If I knew then what I saw that night, I would have never gone into the medical field," Garcia said.

Their bodies were barely recognizable.

"I just saw this patient in this stretcher and it was convulsing and the way it was convulsing I went, 'Oh my god.' I mean, a human being," Garcia said.

She's prayed the rosary at the roadside memorial countless times since then.

"They need our prayers, and they still need our prayers," Garcia said.

In the decade since the crosses were laid down, a million and a half more undocumented immigrants have come into our country.

"It's not going to stop them from trying to come here," Garcia said.

By next year, the grass will be a little higher at the memorial, and our memory of that day a little hazier. But not for Castillo or Garcia. No matter how many times a new day dawns -- 10 years from now or 10 years from then -- they can't forget.

"There's no way you can forget that day," Garcia said.

We paid so much attention 10 years ago because of the shocking nature of just how many people died that day. But immigrants are still doing risky things for the chance to live here in the United States. After years of decline, illegal border crossings, arrests and even, deaths are climbing again this year. Bodies are discovered in South Texas nearly every week.

Find Ted on Facebook at ABC13TedOberg or on Twitter at @tedoberg

Copyright © 2022 KTRK-TV. All Rights Reserved.