Desert rescues on rise with heat

Border Patrol has responded to 121 emergency calls so far, compared with 88 last year
2013-06-30T00:00:00Z 2013-07-01T15:38:23Z Desert rescues on rise with heatPerla Trevizo Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Teresa Morales had been in the desert less than a day, her 1 1/2 year old baby strapped to her back, when she got so lost and desperate in the triple-digit heat that she called the Border Patrol for help.

"I didn't know what else to do," said the Guatemalan mother with bloodshot eyes. She had left Altar, Sonora, for the Arizona border the previous afternoon with her baby and her 17-year-old son.

So far this fiscal year, the Border Patrol has recorded more than 130 deaths in the Tucson sector and nearly 400 rescues, including Morales and her children.

Summer is a brutal time to cross the desert and it's especially bad this weekend, with temperatures soaring as high as 120 degrees in some of the shadeless, low-desert areas commonly used by migrants heading north.

"They told me crossing would be easy," she said, "that it would only take a few hours."

Her baby, Ricardo, had been feverish and fussy the first night of their journey to a better life. Their home was destroyed in an earthquake last November.

When she stopped to fix the baby a bottle and give him some medicine, the guide and the rest of the group of Guatemalans left them behind.

She regretted believing in her smugglers the moment she found herself lost in the middle of nowhere in mid-June, with no water and very little food.

"Most of the people we interview say the smuggler told them it would only take eight hours," said Border Patrol supervisory agent and paramedic Gerardo Carrasco. "Just carry this jug and take this pain pill - a combination of caffeine, aspirin and ephedra - it will make you walk faster," the smugglers tell them.

After their rescue, she and Ricardo waited inside a Border Patrol truck with cold air blowing on them, Carrasco removed the boy's sweatshirt to help cool him down. As he and his partner Julie Gallagher tended to the baby, a man who had turned himself earlier that day started to vomit.

"When you start dehydrating your body starts shutting down," Carrasco explained as he started an IV drip on a 58-year-old man, who had been walking in the desert near Sells for four days.

Morales looked at the man, lowered her eyes and shook her head in defeat.

Kids produce more heat

Walking through the desert can be deadly for anyone at any time of year, but it's especially risky in the summer - and the risk is the greatest of all for children.

Children's bodies produce more heat and sweat less than adults, which makes it harder for them to decrease their body temperatures - factors that can put them at higher risk for dehydration, said Dr. Hans Bradshaw, a pediatric emergency doctor at Diamond Children's Emergency Room.

And with triple-digit temperatures, staying hydrated is key. Even a 9- to 12-year-old would need 1 to 1.5 liters of water per hour in the desert, Hans said. It would be impossible for someone to carry enough water to last them the several days the journey takes.

So far this fiscal year, Border Patrol agents have apprehended 8,000 minors in the Tucson sector. About 1,300 of them were accompanied by parents, the rest were traveling in a group without a legal guardian.

Oftentimes, parents have been advised to come through Arizona because it's easier.

"It might be true based on what the border looked like, but once they get here it's very difficult, especially with children," said Andy Adame, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in charge of a border safety initiative targeting Spanish-language media in Mexico, Central America and key cities in the United States.

More calls so far this year

Morales, 41, and her children were found less than 10 miles from the border in the Tohono O'odham Nation, a reservation about the size of Connecticut.

The family was carrying a phone that happened to get a signal when they needed it most and dialed 911. Border Patrol agents found them and called Borstar, the Border Patrol's search, trauma and rescue team, for assistance.

Many desert rescues start with 911 calls. So far, agents have responded to 121 calls compared to 88 last year.

But carrying a cellphone is not the answer to prevent more border deaths, agents say. It can give migrants a false sense of security since in many remote areas the signal is limited or nonexistent, or their battery might die.

More than 2,000 people have perished in the desert in the last decade, even as the number of migrants attempting to cross through Arizona has dropped.

As border enforcement intensified, smugglers led migrants through more dangerous areas.

More migrants have died closer to the border in recent years but farther from roads, John Chamblee, a researcher with Humane Borders, has found. It can take agents a couple of hours to reach the person in distress, and calling for an ambulance might mean waiting another hour or more.

"The desert is so desolate, so vast," said Gallagher, a supervisory agent who's been with the Border Patrol for 13 years.

"You think, this is what they saw last," she said as she drove through dirt roads in the Tohono O'odham Reservation, where nearly half of the remains have been found. "There was no hope."

Unforgettable rescues

Every Borstar agent has a rescue call he can't forget.

Carrasco recalls apprehending a group who said a woman had stayed behind. By the time agents reached her, she had already died.

Using a mascara wand, she left a message on a rock telling her family she had come to join them but she didn't think she was going to make it. That was 10 years ago.

For Gallagher, the memory is of a group she reached too late eight years ago. When she arrived she found a man crying over his wife's body. Their two children, 6 and 8 years old, stood nearby.

She learned the family was trying to cross to get cancer treatment for their 6-year-old girl.

She still wonders what became of them.

Even after turning herself into the Border Patrol, Teresa Morales held tight to her hope for a new life in the United States. When asked if she was ready to return to Guatemala, she stayed silent.

"I hope they will let me stay," she finally said of the agents tending to her baby. "I'm doing it for my children."

Morales and her two sons were processed for return to Guatemala.

On StarNet: Search the Border Death database at azstarnet.com/borderdeaths for the names of those who have died attempting to cross the border from Mexico.

BY THE NUMBERS

Deaths and rescues along the U.S.-Mexico border (Oct. 1, 2012 through May 31, 2013)

Deaths Rescues

Tucson 94 372

Rio Grande Valley 87 379

Laredo 30 583

Del Rio 10 11

Yuma 5 2

El Centro 3 9

San Diego 2 6

El Paso 0 16

Big Bend 1 16

Total 232 1,394

Source: Customs and Border Protection

A WEEK IN THE ARIZONA-SONORA DESERT

• Monday: Agents discover human skeletal remains near Sells.

• Tuesday: Border Patrol agents apprehend five migrants near Three Points. They tell agents they've left three others behind, including one who was very ill. By the time agents find the trio, one has already died.

The same day, a woman calls the Border Patrol to say she got a call from a person who identified himself as her father's guide. He told her he abandoned her father near Three Points after he started having medical complications. Agents find him, but he has already died.

Other agents find an unidentified body near Cockleburr.

• Wednesday: A 911 call alerts agents to six migrants lost in the desert near Sells. They've run out of water and a woman with them is very ill, one says. By the time agents find them three are suffering from extreme dehydration. Two of them respond well to the treatment but one must be airlifted to a hospital.

Near Sasabe, agents find two women suffering from extreme dehydration. One is airlifted to a local hospital.

• Thursday: Three men stranded in the desert near Sasabe call 911. They're out of water and getting sick. When agents reach them, one of the men, suffering from extreme dehydration, falls to the ground. He is airlifted to a local hospital while the other two men are treated at the scene.

Separately, agents find two skeletal remains near Sells.

• Friday: In two separate incidents, Border Patrol agents find skeletal remains in the desert near Amado and human remains near Lukeville. They weren't identified.

• Sunday: A man calls the Border Patrol to say his sister needs medical attention near Amado. He takes agents to a wash, where they find his sister has already died.

• Total dead: 9

Source: Customs and Border Protection, June 10 - 16, 2013

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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