Two days after eight people were killed when an SUV slammed into a crowd waiting at a Brownsville bus stop, information on the victims remains scarce, leaving relatives of missing people scrambling to locate loved ones and pleading for information.
Authorities say the driver, 34-year-old George Alvarez of Brownsville, lost control after running a red light Sunday morning but have not ruled out that he may have intentionally plowed into the stop outside the Bishop Enrique San Pedro Ozanam Center, a shelter and hub for migrants who cross into the country from nearby Mexico.
Eighteen people were hit, and 10 critically injured.
Fingerprints were collected from the victims. All were male and several were from Venezuela, according to Brownsville police, but so far none of their identities have been released.
Police said Tuesday that the department has a list of over 120 names of people who want to know if their relatives are among the victims. They include dozens of photos and contact information submitted by desperate families, all fearing a phone call bearing bad news.
“I know everybody wants to know the names,” said Investigator Martin Sandoval, a department spokesperson.
One woman who has managed to locate a missing relative is Mileidy Gonzalez, 23, whose 45-year-old uncle, Juan Carlos Paredes was injured in the crash. She found out about it through news reports and a migrant who was staying at the shelter, and family members were able to identify Paredes in videos.
One of the relatives called multiple hospitals before finally finding her uncle. They were told he was in delicate condition, and they have not been able to communicate directly with him.
“His leg, back and a part of his clavicle. They’re waiting on specialists to know whether he needs surgery,” Gonzalez said by phone.
Another name on the police list belongs to Hector David Medina-Medero, a 24-year-old Venezuelan who cut hair at the Ozanam shelter. On Tuesday his mother was waiting outside the police department, expecting the worst.
“My son is dead. I know,” Marilin de los Angeles Medero Pina said. “My heart tells me.”
Police will use the list to notify families once the confirmation process is complete, but circumstances of the crash have caused delays, according to Sandoval. Complicating the matter is the fact that many of the victims did not have official identification on them.
“How the accident happened, there were a lot of documents that flew everywhere,” he said. “Trying to match a document to a person in that state is kind of difficult, especially when somebody is deceased.”
Alvarez, the driver, has been charged with eight counts of manslaughter and 10 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, with bail set at $3.6 million. Investigators have been working to determine if the crash may have been purposeful.
Jesus Ferrer, 32, was lined up at the bus stop Sunday with a group of migrants, including some friends, when they noticed the vehicle driving in their direction.
“We spotted a gray SUV that was coming at full speed. It came toward us and veered toward us,” he said.
Ferrer said the driver tried to flee afterward, but the group stopped him.
He added that the man was furious and told those who detained him arrived to “‘Go back to your country.”'
Another witness, Luis Herrera, 36, said the driver yelled a string of Spanish-language obscenities commonly used in Mexico as he raced toward the crowd.
“‘You’re invading my property,”' Herrera recalled him saying.
Herrera was tossed aside by the vehicle and hurt his wrist, but was medically evaluated and cleared without major injury.
“Physically I’m fine, but psychologically I’m not okay after all that’s happened,” he said.
Police chief Felix Sauceda said Monday that police had not confirmed witness reports that the driver was cursing at people.
On Tuesday, Brownsville police said they were aware of a hospital toxicology report indicating Alvarez had cocaine, marijuana and Benzodiazepines in his system.
But Sandoval said the report cannot be relied upon to determine whether the driver may have legally been under the influence at the time, as those drugs can remain in one’s system for days or weeks.
Police are waiting for separate toxicology reports that may be able to determine whether Alvarez had certain quantities of the drugs in his system, Sandoval added.
Those struck by the vehicle were waiting for the bus to go to downtown Brownsville after spending the night at the shelter, according to Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. It is the city’s only overnight shelter and receives migrants from federal custody.
Brownsville has seen an increase of Venezuelan migrants over the last two weeks for reasons that are not yet clear, prompting city officials to indefinitely extend a declaration of emergency.
Roughly 30,000 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, have entered the U.S. in the Brownsville region since mid-April. That compares with 1,700 who Border Patrol agents encountered in the first two weeks of April.