SAN ANTONIO —Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller experienced hours of anguish as he paid hospital visits to the surviving migrants who’d been inside a tractor trailer rig where dozens of people were found dead amid the sweltering heat.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the death toll had risen to 51, according to Texas officials, in what’s believed to be the worst case of human smuggling in recent U.S. history.
García-Siller, the archbishop of the diocese of San Antonio, wanted to be sure the survivors knew people here were helping them, cared about them and praying for them.
Seeing the condition of most of the patients,“it was very easy to picture in some way what was inside that trailer. They were asphyxiated,” he said.
“That trailer was abandoned. The bottom line is that immigrants were abandoned. People. People,” he said, the emotion breaking his soft voice. “This is the experience of many immigrants coming to the States even if they cross, they experience the loneliness the abandonment, being abandoned.”
García-Siller began making rounds to hospitals soon after news of the discovery of the dead and victims broke Monday evening, knowing survivors might need to talk to someone they could trust.
He visited nine people in six hospitals from Monday evening into the early morning Tuesday. But patient after patient was intubated and not communicative, he said.
At University Hospital, he spent 20 minutes praying at the side of a young woman that medical staff said had been unresponsive.
As he was leaving the room, he took one look back and suddenly, her eyes opened. In the midst of yet another heart-wrenching tragedy in García-Seller’s archdiocese — he has been ministering to families and victims of the mass shooting in Uvalde — this brought joy.
The young woman was intubated but was able to tell García-Seller she was from Guatemala.
“I said, ‘We are here to pray for you and for the rest of the people that are with you,’” García-Siller said. “I said, ‘You are alive and we are grateful to God and we hope to see you improving constantly.’”
Officials announced Tuesday afternoon that some teenagers could be among those who died in the rig discovered Monday afternoon after a plea for help was heard on the 100-plus degree day. Rainfall that cooled temperatures Tuesday came too late.
University Hospital is treating two patients: a 23-year-old woman in serious condition, and an adolescent male in critical condition, hospital spokesperson Andra Wazir said.
The woman is improving, but another teenage survivor at University Hospital is dire, County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores said Tuesday afternoon.
García-Siller said he visited a young man at the hospital but he could not speak. However, hospital officials showed him an item he had with him, which García-Seller said was a scapular, a religious item worn around the neck, bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
García-Siller said with the official investigation by federal authorities going on, he was unable to get names or hometowns of the patients, which he understands.
That made his last visit Tuesday all the more significant, he said.
‘Let’s have compassion’
He spoke of seeing a young girl, 6, at a hospital and she was able to tell him her name — Serenidad, which means serenity.
“She was beautiful,” he said.
She hadn’t been in touch with family because she had to give up her phone, García-Siller said. She told him she was from Guatemala but didn’t know her hometown or who she came with. He had no details about her.
“I said something like, ‘You are a really beautiful person,’ and she smiled,” he said. “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.’”
With back-to-back tragedies, García-Siller said people are questioning faith and asking, where is God?
García-Siller lashed out at leaders who have failed to pass immigration reform and at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for the tweet he sent when he officially announced the discovery of the dozens of bodies in the tractor trailer.
“It was horrible. Immediately it was, this is because of Biden. Again, it’s their own interests instead of saying we are here,” García-Siller said. “Let’s have compassion on these people. We are going to do all we can to help them. We are going to connect with their families.”
“People do not count,” he said. “In this case, immigrants.”
NBC News reached out to the governor’s office for response and a response was pending.