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Death Toll of San Antonio Tractor-Trailer Tragedy Rises to 53: Migrants Were 'Abandoned,' Says Archbishop

·5-min read

As soon as he heard about the tragedy unfolding in San Antonio, where dozens of people were found dead in a tractor-trailer on Monday, a local Archbishop began visiting survivors to make sure they knew people were supporting them.

Gustavo García-Siller, the archbishop of the diocese of San Antonio, told NBC News that he visited nine hospitals from Monday evening into Tuesday, but that many of the survivors he saw were intubated and not communicative.

​"That trailer was abandoned. The bottom line is that immigrants were abandoned. People. People," he told the outlet, the emotion audible in his voice.

"This is the experience of many immigrants coming to the States even if they cross," he added.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the death toll increased to 53, while 11 individuals remain hospitalized, a spokesperson for U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tells PEOPLE.

RELATED: San Antonio Fire Chief Details Gruesome Scene After 46 People Found Dead in Trailer: 'Stacks of Bodies'

One woman, who opened her eyes just as he was about to leave, was able to tell García-Siller that she was from Guatemala, according to NBC News.

"I said, 'You are alive and we are grateful to God and we hope to see you improving constantly,'" he recalled telling her.

During another visit, he was able to speak with a 6-year-old girl, who told him her name and that she is from Guatemala.

"I said something like, 'You are a really beautiful person,' and she smiled," he told NBC News. "I said, 'Smile often. People around you need to see you smile. In these difficult times your smile is a way to communicate and you can do some good for us.'"

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock (13008136a) Body bags lie at the scene where a tractor trailer with multiple dead bodies was discovered, in San Antonio Migrant Deaths, San Antonio, United States - 27 Jun 2022
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock (13008136a) Body bags lie at the scene where a tractor trailer with multiple dead bodies was discovered, in San Antonio Migrant Deaths, San Antonio, United States - 27 Jun 2022

Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock Police block the scene where a truck with multiple dead bodies was discovered in San Antonio, Texas

On Tuesday afternoon, Bexar County District 1 Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores shared in a press conference that the medical examiner's office had received 51 bodies. The following day, a county spokesperson confirmed to NBC News that number had increased to 53.

Of the bodies with the medical examiner's office, 40 are men and 13 are women, the spokesperson told the outlet, noting that they had potentially identified 39 of the victims.

"This is the worst human-smuggling event in the United States. This sheds light on how dangerous human smuggling is," Craig Larrabee, the acting special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio, told CNN in a statement.

As of Tuesday, the victims who were identified hailed from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, according to an ICE spokesperson.

RELATED: Death Toll of San Antonio Tractor-Trailer Tragedy Rises to 50, 3 Suspects Are in Custody: ICE

Local officials were first alerted to the presence of the trailer around 6 p.m. Monday, Police Chief Bill McManus told reporters Monday night, reported CNN.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Fire Chief Charles Hood said 16 survivors of the tragedy (12 adults and four children) had been "hot to the touch" when discovered and "suffering from heat stroke, heat exhaustion."

All 16 were subsequently transferred to hospital, with two people admitted to University Hospital and at least five brought to Baptist Medical Center, PEOPLE confirmed Monday.

"We're not supposed to open up a truck and see stacks of bodies in there," Chief Hood continued. "None of us come to work imagining that."

Local and U.S. authorities revealed Monday that the trailer of the 18-wheeler also had no working water supply or air conditioning.

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Speaking with Good Morning America on Wednesday morning, first responders recalled the horrific scene.

"The heat was torrential," said Chief Hood. "There was no air in that vehicle. There was no water. They suffered. They lost consciousness and then they ended up dying."

Dr. Bryan Everitt, a medical director with the San Antonio Fire Department, said that the victims who survived were "very close" to death.

"They were extremely critical. They needed emergency care," Everitt shared.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock (13008136a) Body bags lie at the scene where a tractor trailer with multiple dead bodies was discovered, in San Antonio Migrant Deaths, San Antonio, United States - 27 Jun 2022
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock (13008136a) Body bags lie at the scene where a tractor trailer with multiple dead bodies was discovered, in San Antonio Migrant Deaths, San Antonio, United States - 27 Jun 2022

Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock Police block the scene where a truck with multiple dead bodies was discovered in San Antonio, Texas

President Joe Biden offered prayers in a statement while condemning the "multi-billion dollar criminal smuggling industry" that preys on people in need, "leading to far too many innocent deaths."

"The tragic loss of life in San Antonio, Texas that took place yesterday is horrifying and heartbreaking. Our prayers are with those who lost their lives, their loved ones, as well as those still fighting for their lives," the president said in a statement released on Tuesday.

"While we are still learning all the facts about what happened and the Department of Homeland Security has the lead for the investigation, initial reports are that this tragedy was caused by smugglers or human traffickers who have no regard for the lives they endanger and exploit to make a profit," Biden continued.

RELATED: 46 People Dead, 16 Hospitalized After Being Found Inside 18-Wheeler in San Antonio

On Monday, an ICE spokesperson told PEOPLE, "On June 27, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) responded to a call from San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) in reference to an alleged human smuggling event involving a tractor trailer on Quintana Road near Cassin Road. Upon arrival in the scene, HSI confirmed more than 40 deceased individuals."

They added, "HSI continues its enforcement efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of our communities. We will continue to address the serious public safety threat posed by human smuggling organizations and their reckless disregard for the health and safety of those smuggled. To report suspicious activity, we encourage people to call the HSI Tip Line at 1-866-DHS-2ICE. All calls are kept confidential."

The San Antonio Fire Department confirmed to PEOPLE that this is "an active and ongoing incident" with the investigation being led by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

A spokesperson for U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) told PEOPLE on Tuesday morning that Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) has detained three people.

Two individuals have since been charged with being in possession of a firearm while illegally in the United States, while a third suspect remains in custody and is expected to be charged, according to CNN and Reuters.

NBC News reported that the men do not face any formal allegations of being connected to smuggling or the deaths of the victims.

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