Revelations: Sin nombre, reflections on the Goliad wreck that killed 15, injured eight
It wasn't supposed to end that way - the night of Sunday, July 22.
I wrapped up early at work and planned to head home at 6:30 p.m. - which never, I repeat, never, happens on Sunday.
I drove home determined to relax that night and considered all the lovely ways I would spend my evening. Oh, yes. It would be wonderful.
I walked through the door and fed and walked Sadie Little. I changed into my comfy-wear and flipped on the news before heading to the kitchen to ignite the stove.
Sadie was already curled up in her dog bed, and for a moment I was comforted by the sizzle of vegetable oil and onions heating in the pan.
As I chopped and listened to the evening news chatter, I heard a faint ding on my iPad across the room. A few moments later, a text message dinged on my cellphone.
Vegetable slicing ceased, and I sighed. I already knew those were evil, dinner-ruining dings.
I knew the dings indicated I'd be going back to work. But I never would've guessed there would be death and paradigm-shifting tragedy on the other end of those dings. Never.
I turned off the stove and fetched the iPad.
An unread email in my inbox stared back at me. The subject line read, "huge wreck reported." There were no exclamation points or capital letters emphasizing the wreck was indeed, "A HUGE WRECK!" So, I considered for a moment that perhaps, maybe, hopefully - it wasn't.
And perhaps, maybe, hopefully, I could make a few calls to local law enforcement and write a short report from home.
I began the rounds of cop calls, searching for someone - anyone - to confirm details of the wreck.
But no one would confirm or deny a wreck even occurred.
A few calls later the only detail I confirmed was a one-vehicle wreck somewhere in Goliad. No one wanted to give me directions or confirm an approximate location. No one knew where, or to whom, to transfer my calls. And when I probed for information, my questions were met with agitation and tight lips.
If the wreck wasn't a big deal, they would dole out the information, I thought. My reporter radar went off.
"Multiple fatalities," I uttered aloud, as I typed the following response email to my editors: "Making calls on this. Goliad is refusing to give any information."
I packed up my computer, note pads, pens and phone chargers, and drove back to the office to pick up a photographer.
We made it about three miles from Berclair before we were stopped by a deputy on U.S. Highway 59 and Farm-to-Market Road 1351. The road was closed. We could drive no farther.
There we sat for many hours, making calls, updating stories via cellphone and text messaging, waiting to find out what the heck was going on a few miles down the darkened highway.
We were alone on the road, except for a lone deputy directing traffic away from the road.
Sometime between 9 and 9:30 p.m., I broke the first report of the crash. It would be one of the worst one-vehicle wrecks ever to be reported.
Twenty-three people - later confirmed to be undocumented immigrants from Guatemala and Mexico - who were in the process of being smuggled to Houston in a Ford F-250, were found scattered and lifeless on the highway. Some were dead; some were still breathing. Some died in the cab of the truck; others were ejected from the bed.
The group packed themselves tightly into the vehicle, exceeding the maximum weight the vehicle could safely transport.
About 7:30 p.m., the front tire blew out and the truck hit a tree. Eleven died instantly. Two died later that night. Two more died the following Monday and Tuesday.
The remaining eight were transported to hospitals in three cities.
I remember standing on the highway staring at the blood spatter on the pavement. I stared at the skeleton of the pickup truck in the road and wondered whether those who were riding in the bed felt lucky their uncomfortable placement in the vehicle saved their life because those riding in the comfort of the cab were all crushed.
I stared at the tree responsible for the deaths. It was otherwise intact, except for some missing bark. Had the tire blown out a little farther down the road, they would have driven into a field, I thought.
I covered the Goliad wreck for days, exhausting myself each day making early and late phone calls, sending emails and traveling to various memorial ceremonies.
Three days after the crash, I received a call from a woman in New Mexico who believed her brother was one of the 23 passengers. He planned to cross the border illegally the same day. He went missing and never called her. She thought he was dead.
When I returned the call, I was met with the tears of a stranger on the phone, who implored me to help her.
"Will you please help me? I have pictures I can send you. You are my only hope," she said, her voice trembling in desperation.
My stomach turned and my eyes welled with tears. I'm not anyone special. I'm just the reporter who happened to be on duty when the crash happened.
Maintaining a careful speech, I said, "Yes. I promise I will do everything I can to help you find him."
She emailed two photos of her brother and, as promised, I sent them to as many agencies as I could. I went by the mortuary where the bodies were and sent photos to the owner to see if he could make an identification. Every day, I stared at her brother's photos on my desk and realized each one of the 23 had names, families and reasons for getting on that truck. I wanted to know who they were. I wanted to tell their stories.
It took me several days to process what happened and allow myself to transition from reporter to a woman burdened by tragedy.
Why would this happen? Why was getting on that truck a better option than staying in their country? Why would they risk their lives like this?
The more I became invested in the facts, the more I learned about the process of human smuggling and the real story behind the wreck. It was no longer a simple truck crash. The wreck was symbolic of a greater tragedy, one I'd never truly sought to understand.
After talking to Homeland Security and ICE, I learned the general process of the smugglers who organize the travels of these foreign men, women and children from Central America. I learned they charge thousands of dollars to treat them like cattle, like cargo, only to move many of them to stash houses (some in our own backyards) where they're held at gunpoint, starved and dehydrated in utility-less homes, bound and gagged, and sold into trafficking and slavery organizations. I learned children are held hostage if surcharge smuggling fees can't be paid and, on occasion, those who are being smuggled may end up working as gun-toting guards for the same cartels that transported them across the border.
I learned this is happening. I learned this is happening right now as you read this. And I realized I didn't know about it, and that wasn't OK.
I realized people are being smuggled into this country to earn a better wage than what they're earning in their country. They're risking their lives to flee poverty, joblessness and government corruption for any chance to make a better life for themselves and their families back home. They're passing our United States-Mexico border by the thousands every day, from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and others at the risk of death, poverty, imprisonment and other dangers. This is a better option than living in their native land - a better option.
For years, I was a proponent of more security at the borders, and possibly even the construction of a wall. Not because I'm opposed to immigration, but because I know opening the borders would devastate our economy.
The plight of illegal immigrants never occurred to me. Their struggles didn't matter. Their faces weren't familiar; their names were unknown.
But after the Goliad wreck, I couldn't turn away. I needed to know their names and I yearned to know what led them to the truck? What led them to their deaths?
Since the crash, I've prayed often for the survivors and wept for those who died. I've asked God on many occasions to console the families and heal the survivors.
But what I've been praying for most often is for God to help me strategize a plan that would help rebuild Central American nations to a healthy economic status that would prevent its citizens from fleeing. I've asked him to reveal what I can say to convince others that this is the only real solution to stop illegal immigration - to create economic and educational opportunities.
We can build a wall, sure. We can hire more security to patrol the borders. But human smuggling will not end if our efforts stop there. It will only become more dangerous and expensive. It will create more tragic accidents, possibly even greater than the one in Goliad two weeks ago.
Whatever your feelings about immigration, I ask that you put them aside for a night, a moment, and utter a prayer on behalf of Ricardo Mendoza-Pineda, 22, and Rodolfo Duenas-Vasquez, 39, of Mexico.
And Guatemalan residents, Manuela Salvador-Suar, 15; Leonel Tipaz-DeLeon, 22; Enrique Humberto Solis-Tumux, 15; Maria Dominga Curruchich-Jiatz, 22; Diego Maydoqueo Tipaz-Jorge, 16; Juan Mejia-Morales, 27; Miguel Macario-Cuino, 20; Manuel Zuniga-Lemus, 45; Victor Tomas Pablo-Jorge, 17; Domingo Ramos-Pol, 24; Agustin Solis-Lopes, 32; Angel Guarcas-Pablo, 28; Amilcar Pol-Panho, 17; Jose Morales-Zavala, 18; Rocael Gonzalez-Diaz, 33; Mario Pango-Tol, 16; Cesar Tuquiz-Pablo, 16; Miguel Lares-Zetina, 21; and Miguel Geronimo Cabrera-Marroquin, 22.
And for the two unidentified passengers, a man and woman - sin nombre.
Remember, they each have names and families. They each had dreams and hopes for a better life. And remember, they, like you, are all children of God.
Then remember to thank God that you live in the United States - a country people risk their lives to enter, and a land that no one risks their life to flee.
Jennifer Preyss is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach her at 361-580-6535 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jenniferpreyss