A migrant survivor of the trailer: ‘They couldn’t breathe’

Jul 4, 2022, 4:41 PM | Updated: 6:03 pm
Mynor Cardona and Ufemia Tomas, parents of Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás, smile as they talk with h...

Mynor Cardona and Ufemia Tomas, parents of Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás, smile as they talk with her through a call to the hospital where she is being treated in Guatemala City, Monday, July 4, 2022. Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás is one of the survivors of the more than 50 migrants who were found dead inside a tractor-trailer near San Antonio, Texas. (AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)

(AP Photo/Oliver de Ros)

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The advice of a friend to stay near the door of a semi-trailer may have saved Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás from the deadly end that 53 other migrants met when the truck was abandoned last week on the outskirts of San Antonio.

Cardona Tomás, a 20-year-old from Guatemala’s capital, said in a phone interview Monday from her hospital bed that it was already hot on June 27 when she stepped out of the warehouse on the Texas side of the Mexico border where she had been waiting and climbed into the back of the trailer.

The smugglers confiscated their cellphones and covered the trailer’s floor with what she believes was powdered chicken bouillon, apparently to throw off any dogs they might encounter at checkpoints. Sitting stuffed inside the stifling trailer with dozens of others, the powder stung her skin.

Remembering her friend’s advice about staying near the door where it would be cooler, Cardona Tomás shared it with another friend she had made during the journey.

“I told a friend that we shouldn’t go to the back and should stay near (the entrance), in the same place without moving,” said Cardona Tomás, who is being treated at Methodist Hospital Metropolitan in San Antonio. That friend survived, too.

As the truck moved on, making additional stops to pick up more migrants, people began to cluster near the door like Cardona Tomás. She had no way to track the time.

“The people were yelling, some cried. Mostly women were calling for it to stop and to open the doors because it was hot, that they couldn’t breathe,” she said, still laboring a bit to speak after being intubated at the hospital.

She said the driver or someone else in the cab yelled back that “we were about to arrive, that there were 20 minutes left, six minutes.”

“People asked for water, some had run out, others carried some,” she said.

The truck would continue stopping occasionally, but just before she lost consciousness it was moving slowly. She woke up in the hospital.

The driver and three others were arrested and charged by U.S. prosecutors.

Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry has said that 20 Guatemalans died in the incident, 16 of whom have been positively identified. Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro said he hoped the first bodies would be repatriated this week.

Cardona Tomás said the truck’s destination that day was Houston, though she was ultimately headed to North Carolina.

“She didn’t have a job and asked me if I would support her” in migrating to the U.S., her father, Mynor Cordón, said Monday in Guatemala City, where the family lives. He said he knew of other cases of children who just left without telling their families and ended up disappearing or dying so he decided to back her.

He paid $4,000 for a smuggler — less than half the total cost — to take her to the U.S. She left Guatemala on May 30, traveling in cars, buses and finally the semi-trailer in Texas.

“I didn’t know that she would travel in a trailer,” he said. “She told us it would be by foot. It seems like at the last moment the smugglers decided to put (her) in the trailer, along with two more friends, who survived. One of them is still in critical condition.”

Cordón had stayed in touch with his daughter up until the morning of June 27. Her last message to him that Monday was at 10:28 a.m. in Guatemala, or 11:28 a.m. in Texas. “We’re going to go in an hour,” she wrote.

It was not until late that night that Cardona Tomás’ family learned of the abandoned trailer. It was two more days before relatives in the United States confirmed that she was alive and hospitalized.

“We cried so much,” Cordón said. “I even was thinking where we were going to have the wake and bury her. She is a miracle.”

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A migrant survivor of the trailer: ‘They couldn’t breathe’