Authorities said the victims appear to be undocumented immigrants.
“Right now we have 18 bodies,” Justice of the Peace Jack Milam told reporters. The majority of the bodies were inside the trailer, and some of the survivors are believed to have fled into the surrounding fields, he said.
Sheriff’s deputies found the bodies around 2am local time after an unidentified caller reported a “disturbance” inside a trailer at the Speedy Stop truck stop, six miles south of Victoria, Stuart Posey, an investigator with the Victoria County Sheriff’s Department, told reporters earlier Wednesday.
It was not clear how many people were in the back of the tractor-trailer or how long they had been in there, Posey said. The truck driver had apparently unhitched the cab and left the trailer at the truck stop.
Posey could not confirm how many others were hospitalized and there is no immediate information on the cause of the deaths. But, Victoria radio station KTXN reported that 50 suspected undocumented immigrants from Mexico had been packed into the trailer, and that 12 people were taken to the hospital, including two in intensive care.
The station also reported six people were in custody and authorities were searching for others.
A commentator from KTXN later said that preliminary and unconfirmed reports suggested the cause of death was asphyxiation and dehydration since the temperature inside the tractor-trailer could have exceeded 98 degrees.
Federal immigration agents were headed to the truck stop, located along Highway 77 about 230 miles from the Mexican border.
Denton Lankford from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services office in San Antonio told CBS Radio News “this kind of alien smuggling often results in death.”
“These trucks are rolling coffins… This is the work of alien smugglers who are scum,” he said.
Lankford said smugglers charge up to $2,500 to sneak people across the border, often under inhumane and dangerous conditions.