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Hopper deaths...

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sad story...


Skeletons in Iowa Rail Car Tell Tale of Immigrants' Gamble



ENISON, Iowa, Oct. 15 — About four months ago somewhere along a stretch of railroad tracks in Texas, perhaps, or Mexico, 11 people took a death-defying gamble.


They climbed into an empty grain hopper, a rail car that can be tightly sealed to keep its contents clean and dry. The hatch was shut and locked from the outside, leaving the stowaways, presumably immigrants being smuggled from Mexico or Central America, trapped in stifling darkness.


Then they died. Whether they suffocated, starved or succumbed to the heat, the authorities do not know, only that they died horribly, and unnoticed.


The Union Pacific hopper ended up in Oklahoma, where it sat unopened in long-term storage all summer and into the fall. On Sunday, it traveled to this small farm town 60 miles northeast of Omaha, where a worker at a grain elevator opening grain hoppers for routine inspection found the near-skeletal remains, Sheriff Tom Hogan of Crawford County said at a news conference here this morning.


Sheriff Hogan described the sight as heartbreaking.


"Our thoughts go to those people that found themselves for whatever reason trapped inside that rail car," he said. "It had to be frightening."


Hours after the discovery, the hopper was taken to Des Moines, where the bodies were removed and police investigators began trying to determine their identities.


Sheriff Hogan said the authorities had not determined the immigrants' sex, age or nationality. He said he did not know how long the corpses had been trapped, but suggested that because of the state of decomposition, it was at least "weeks ago, as opposed to days ago."


Jerry Heinauer, director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the Omaha District, which includes Nebraska and Iowa, said the hopper left Matamoros, Mexico, four months ago and had been parked in Oklahoma from mid-June until Oct. 10, before arriving here.


José Luis Cuevas, the Mexican consul for Nebraska, Iowa and South and North Dakota, said he was working under the assumption that the immigrants were Mexicans.


John Bromley, a spokesman for Union Pacific in Omaha, said the dead had been found in a grain hopper at the Farm Service Co-op and Archer Daniels Midland elevators in Denison, but declined further comment.


A spokeswoman for Archer Daniels Midland, Karla Miller, said the hopper had been in long-term storage until the company recently ordered a group of hoppers to transport grain.


Sheriff Hogan said the hatch of the hopper could be opened only from outside. He said that the immigrants wore "warm weather" clothing and that there was no grain in the hopper.


The authorities said this morning that they had received telephone calls from as far as New York from people trying to find out whether the immigrants were their relatives.


Many residents were stunned in this farming town of 7,339 with a growing Hispanic population.


Mayor Ken Livingston of Denison said he had spoken with religious and community leaders to help with managing grief if the immigrants had family members here.


"If what's alleged is that this is a smuggling operation," Mr. Livingston asked, "who's going to come forward?"


Along the Texas-Mexico border, where the Union Pacific freight crossed from Matamoros to Brownsville, Tex., Border Patrol officials doubted that the immigrants had boarded in Mexico.


The Border Patrol, the Customs Service and the private security force of the railroad routinely inspect trains at crossings with dogs that can sniff out drugs and people.


Typically, officials said, illegal immigrants cross the Rio Grande alone or in small groups led by a smuggler known as a coyote.


Harry Beall, an assistant chief of the Border Patrol in the McAllen, Tex., sector, said several organized smuggling rings in that region specialized in placing illegal immigrants in northbound boxcars.


Chief Beall added that his office kept a database of names and telephone numbers of smugglers. He said his office had contacted officials in Iowa to determine whether any telephone numbers or names had been found in the pockets of the immigrants.


Chief Beall said trains were typically inspected first at crossings and again at railyards and border patrol checkpoints in Texas as far north as Corpus Christi, 125 miles north of Brownsville.


"We walk the train, and we have canines that are trained to alert to human cargo or contraband," he said. "If it's a grain hopper, we bang the side with our fist. The empty ones sound like a big drum. The empty ones we look in."


The McAllen office caught 2,095 illegal immigrants in freight cars in the 2002 fiscal year, including 26 people found on a train in June. In that case, the immigrants were found by a trained dog in a grain hopper filled with soda ash, the same sort of hopper with the bodies in Iowa.


In 1987, border agents found 18 dead illegal immigrants in a freight train that had stopped in Sierra Blanca, Tex., on a boiling summer day. One man survived by using a railroad spike to cut an air hole in the freight car.


Often, officials say, immigrants are locked in a car by the coyote. Sometimes the car is accidentally locked. Many times, immigrants, realizing that they are trapped, bang against the sides of freight cars, desperately trying to call the attention of someone outside.


Chief Beall assumed that the dead immigrants in Iowa had most likely tried at some point to call attention.


Today in Denison, residents voiced dismay at news of the deaths.


"I can't imagine people being so desperate to come to the United States and be willing to do that," Lori Schmeckpeper, a secretary at the Denison Baptist Church said.


Ms. Schmeckpeper noted that the town had seen an influx in recent years of Hispanic immigrants drawn by work at two meatpacking plants.


"I wonder if they even realized that once you get in one of those cars that you can't get out if it's shut from the outside," she said. "I feel really bad for possibly the families that are still in Mexico and maybe the families that are over here that might have been waiting for them. It's such a horrible thing."

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somewhere in my province some guy was in his car and a freight hit him or something, just glanced at it at my friends house, didnt bother rreading the artical.

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