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"Heartbreaking" 911 calls prompt search for tanker truck that may be carrying 80 trapped migrants

A "heartbreaking" 911 call from a man who said he and approximately 80 other migrants were trapped in the back of a tanker truck and struggling to breathe has prompted a massive search in the San Antonio, Texas, area, the Bexar County sheriff told CBS News on Wednesday. 

At approximately 10 p.m. on February 8, a man called 911 and told the dispatcher that he and other undocumented migrants were trapped, according to a recording of the call obtained by CBS News. 

"We need help," the caller said in Spanish. Others could be heard yelling, crying and breathing heavily throughout the nearly four-minute call. 

"We are dying," the man said, as others could be heard begging for help. 

"We don't have any more oxygen," he added.  

"How many people are there?" the dispatcher asked soon after. 

"80 people," the man replied. The dispatcher, sounding surprised, asked again — "How many? 80?" — but the call ended moments later. 

Dispatchers received another call soon after. The caller told the dispatcher that he and the other migrants were still trapped in the truck and did not know where they were.  

"We don't see anything, we are inside of a tanker," the man said, adding that he believed the truck was parked on the side of the road "because cars are driving by." 

"You're literally hearing people that believe they're moments away from death," Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar told CBS News. Salazar said the calls were "heartbreaking" and left the 911 dispatchers "visibly shaken." 

Local and federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are investigating the calls. The Bexar County Sheriff's Office has released surveillance footage of what it says may be the truck in question — but Salazar noted the difficulty of locating a specific white tanker truck in or around a large city with several major highways. 

"There's always hope," Salazar said, when asked if the migrants could still be alive two days after making the call. 

"I can't even imagine what they went through," he added, expressing his concern that the truck driver may have abandoned the vehicle once they realized the severity of the situation. 

"I don't even want to imagine what would happen if this guy, or people, park this trailer, walk away from it and leave it," he said. "These people are trapped and God knows what's going to happen to them at that point." 

When asked if he thought the calls could be a hoax, Salazar said he'd bet "the rest of my paychecks for the rest of my life on that this is not a hoax." 

"That was very real, what we were hearing," he said. 

Salazar noted that "thousands" of people are the victims of human smuggling every day, and said the 911 calls provide a "very grim reminder of exactly what these folks are confronted with." 

"These people are … crammed into this truck that they have no way of getting themselves out of," he added. "They're at the mercy of these traffickers." 

In a broader statement issued Wednesday on border control numbers, Customs and Border Protection noted the danger of human smuggling operations. 

"All too often our agents find human remains or encounter lost migrants who are ill, injured, and abandoned by smugglers. We're also seeing migrants subjected to inhumane conditions locked in tractor trailers, car trunks, rail cars, and crowded stash houses. It's incredibly dangerous, especially in the era of COVID," the agency said. 

Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed reporting.

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