The Boxcar That Became a Coffin

18 aliens die in Texas

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The weak voice was just above a whisper. "We need help. Can you please help us?" Border Patrol Agent Stanley Saathoff turned a crank to unlock the door of a red Missouri Pacific boxcar sitting on a siding in the small town of Sierra Blanca, 90 miles southeast of El Paso. A naked young man threw himself into the startled agent's arms. "You've been sent from heaven," the man moaned.

But when Saathoff looked inside the dark car, he found a scene straight out of hell. Sprawled across the floor in the 100 degrees heat lay the naked bodies of 18 other young men. In their efforts to escape from the locked boxcar, they left gashes on the wood lining of the heavy metal door and used railroad spikes in a vain attempt to gouge through the floor. They had removed their clothes to lessen the effect of the intense heat, also to no avail. Some had chewed their tongues during convulsions, spilling blood on their cast-off clothing.

Thus ended last week one of the worst tragedies in the long and tortured history of illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexican border. The lone survivor, Miguel Tostado Rodriguez, 21, told how he promised to pay $400 to a "coyote" (the term for smugglers who grow wealthy by sneaking Mexicans into the U.S.) for help in rafting the Rio Grande and hiding in a freight train headed for Fort Worth. All but two of his 18 companions had agreed to make similar payments. Those two were guides, working with the coyote.

After the 19 climbed into the boxcar in El Paso at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, the coyote threw a couple of railroad spikes in after them. He said the men could use them to punch through the car floor when they reached their destination. Then he slammed the door shut and locked it. But the smugglers apparently did not realize that this was an airtight steel car, lined with wood and insulating foam, designed to carry beer. The floor was nine inches thick.

It had been close to 100 degrees outside when the doomed passengers entered the car. After four hours, Tostado said, they began suffering from lack of air and water. Many ripped off their clothes. As the train rumbled along busy Interstate 10, the men screamed for help, but their delirious cries could not be heard. When their supply of water ran low, Tostado recalled, many "started fighting with each other because they were desperate to breathe and drink. They didn't know what they were doing."

Tostado found a crack in a corner of the floor, crouched and sucked in the life-saving air. He watched the smuggler's two aides dig at the floor with the spikes. "They ran out of strength, and they were the first to die." Others took up the task, but never completed it. "People started dying, little by little," he said. Desperate for more air, Tostado hacked away with one of the spikes and finally punched through the wood. He dropped to the floor, gulping drafts of air. Tostado was now alive but alone, surrounded by bodies.

It was not until 7 a.m. on Thursday that Agent Saathoff heard the faint plea for help from Tostado. The coyote was believed to have fled back to Mexico. William Harrington, assistant chief of the El Paso Border Patrol, conceded that "we may never get our hands on him." The closest Harrington may come is the coyote's two confederates, whose sordid business led them to death in the boxcar that became a coffin.