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18 Die in Suspected Smuggling Operation

Aired May 14, 2003 - 19:12   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Eighteen people have died in southeastern Texas, the result of a suspected smuggling operation. Now all of the victims are believed to be illegal immigrants desperate to come to America. As many as 70 people were packed inside a hot tractor trailer, where many of them suffocated.
CNN's Gary Tuchman is in Victoria, Texas, with more on the tragic discovery -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, hello to you. And details are being released very slowly, but you don't have to have all of the details to know how horrible this situation is.

Eighteen men, women and at least one small boy about 4 or 5 years old died after being inside this truck that is still behind me with up to, and this is the latest number, 140 other illegal immigrants desperate to come to the United States. Eighteen of them died, 17 on the scene. They were found this morning. 13 were still in the truck, four were found on the ground. Another man died at the hospital from cardiac arrest.

As we speak, there are four people in the hospital, another 40 being held at a local community center here in Victoria, Texas, and according to officials between 40 and 80 -- and they're not sure, and they may never be positively sure -- but from 40 and 80 are now nowhere to be seen.

There is a man in custody. His name is Tyrone Williams. He is said to be the owner of this truck. We are not being told that he was the driver of the truck. But we are being told he's from Schenectady, New York, originally. He's a permanent resident of the United States, originally from Jamaica, now lives in Texas. No charges have been filed yet.

However, if the suspect is found guilty of migrant smuggling in this case, the penalties are severe.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BOB WALLIS, IMMIGRATIONS AND CUSTOMS: Potential penalties, the penalties are very, very harsh for smuggling, especially when it results in death. The section of Law 274, the statute itself, provides anything from death, it provides 25 years to life. This is a serious, serious crime that has serious penalties.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TUCHMAN: One can only imagine how horrible it was in the back of that truck. The temperature right now is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit. They were in there for at least a day and as we said, up to 140 people packed in one vehicle, coming from, we're told, the people who were inside, from Mexico, from Honduras and from El Salvador.

What will happen to the people who are now being kept at the community center? Officials are not telling us. They say they will take care of them, but as far as their permanent disposition, we're not being told.

One other thing we want to mention to you, we are told, and there were several children on the truck, we are told one little girl celebrated her birthday today and that authorities brought in a cake and sang her happy birthday here at the Victoria community center.

Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: Just unbelievable. Gary Tuchman, thanks very much.

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