Fire Department in Texas Border County Recovering Bodies of Migrants Every Day

The fire department chief of a small Texas border county sees no end in sight for his weary team of first responders who every day recover migrant children and adults from the Rio Grande.

Manuel Mello III leads the Eagle Pass Fire Department in south-central Texas, an area that has become a top location for illegal migration nationwide. As more migrants attempt to cross the river as their final step in a long journey to the United States, many do not make it.

“Two years ago, we would probably make in a year’s time about 20 to 25 drownings,” Mello told the Washington Examiner in a phone call Friday. “Right now, you’re looking at maybe 30 body recoveries in a month.”

Mello’s team is not only responsible for responding to fire emergencies in the 75,000-resident Maverick County; they also handle all emergency medical services and have the only swift water rescue in the region. Not only is his staff working overtime at a rate they have never hit before and trying to manage with just four ambulances to respond to calls — they are struggling with the reality of pulling babies and children from the water.

The Border Patrol operates boats in the Rio Grande and will rescue migrants, but agents will not pull deceased migrants from the river, leaving it to the fire department to recover those who drowned. Sometimes, Mexican officials will call Mello to let him know about a body washed up in the overgrown brush that spans the U.S. side of the river. Because there is but one boat ramp into the river and bodies can be found miles up and down the river, it can be a time-consuming effort.

The fire department uses a simple system to track those it recovers but was unable to break down the numbers by immigration status, gender, or age. As a result, Mello has to go by what he has seen in recent months and could not provide data for the past year.

Child drownings are becoming very common, he said, noting the death of a 3-year-old boy this week.

“We’ve been seeing a whole lot more children drowning — not like years past. I’ve been here 30 years. Once in a while, you’d see a child drowning. It was mostly male migrants that were crossing the river,” said Mello. “Now, we see people of all ages. It’s just overwhelming because you’ll see pregnant females. … We had a family crossing, and they lost their children.”

The uptick in deaths comes as more people are being encountered attempting to enter the U.S. illegally than at any time in history. Given that more people are attempting to cross the river, the number who are unsuccessful is also rising.

Recently, the fire department pulled six bodies from the river in one day, and on that same day, Mexican first responders pulled six people from the south side of the river. In addition, the department recovers one to two bodies per week of migrants who died of dehydration and heat-related illnesses.

Maverick County does not have its own medical examiner, and the fire department must transport every body an hour’s drive to Webb County. Medical Examiner Dr. Corrine Stern has been in her role as a forensic pathologist for two decades and has never seen anything like what is unfolding.

“This is my busiest year in my career ever,” Stern told CNN’s Rosa Flores and Rosalina Nieves this week.

She had tracked 196 migrant deaths this time last year across 12 counties. This year, she is responsible for autopsies in 11 counties and has already surpassed 218 deaths.

The human toll is a challenge logistically. Her five coolers have 260 bodies inside. Short on room, Stern asked local funeral home directors to hold bodies until she could make more room, CNN reported. Stern did not return a request for an interview.

Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber said one morgue recently refused to take in any more bodies because it was out of space. One morgue director suggested the city move bodies outside the jail, an idea that Schmerber rejected, the New York Post reported. A funeral home director who spoke with the outlet on condition of anonymity said he had to “stack” bodies at his facility due to a space shortage.

The bodies of migrants who cannot be identified are being buried at the back of a county cemetery with crosses made from PVC pipes, according to CNN. They are fingerprinted before burial in hopes of being able to identify them later.

The crisis is also taking a toll on first responders. Counseling and mental health services are available to the fire department and EMS employees, but Mello worried that pulling babies and children from the river is hitting his staff especially hard given that around 70% of fire employees are in their 20s and 30s and have children that age.

“It’s very heartbreaking. It’s stressful. You go through a lot of emotions,” said Mello.

Mello lamented that local officials had not heard from the Biden administration at any point since January 2021. The state has reached out, and Mello requested emergency funding and equipment.

“Several years ago, I told a reporter, ‘This thing’s not going to stop,’” Mello said, referring to when illegal migration through Eagle Pass began to rise in 2019. “I said, ‘You guys are going to continue coming down here and covering drownings.’ And look at us right now, recovering double the drownings that we used to have back then.”

Eagle Pass Mayor Rolando Salinas could not be reached for comment.

Reporting from The Washington Examiner.