BANGKOK, Thailand – Fifty-four illegal migrants from Myanmar, most of them women, suffocated in the back of an unventilated truck in southern Thailand while being smuggled to the resort island of Phuket, police said Thursday.
The victims, along with 47 survivors, had entered Thailand to seek jobs in the booming tourist center.
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They had been forced to stand in the locked and sweltering container area of the truck, normally used to carry seafood, police and survivors said.
They were on the road in Ranong province near Myanmar for about two hours late Wednesday when they started collapsing, they said. Temperatures in the province reached 93 Wednesday.
"I thought everyone was going to die," Saw Win, a 30-year-old survivor, told The Associated Press from police custody. "If the truck had driven for 30 minutes more, I would have died for sure."
He said that about 30 minutes into the trip the occupants pounded on the inside of the truck, screamed for air and used a mobile phone to call the driver, who briefly turned on air conditioning.
The air conditioning later shut down, and they called the driver again 30 minutes later but his phone was off. They continued pounding and screaming until he stopped the truck about an hour later, unlocked the door and ran off when he saw the state of the victims, Saw Win said.
A translator for police gave a slightly different account of the incident based on his conversations with survivors.
He said the air conditioning had broken down while the truck was waiting for a police checkpoint to close for the night.
The translator, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the driver ran away without unlocking the door.
It was only when nearby villagers heard screams and banging from the vehicle that they came to investigate and opened the doors, he said.
"When police got to the scene, they found that 54 of the workers were already dead in the packed container truck," said Col. Kraithong Chanthongbai, police chief for Ranong's Suksamran district. Thirty-seven of the dead were women and 17 were men.
Kraithong said 21 of the survivors were hospitalized, and the rest held for questioning.
No officials at Thailand's Labor Ministry, which regulates foreign workers, were available for comment, despite repeated phone calls to their offices.
Television reports showed police lifting bodies out of the truck until it was emptied except for a few pieces of clothing.
The dead — many wearing little more than T-shirts, shorts and sandals — were laid out on the floor of a storage facility of a local charity.
Survivors told police that they each paid $315 to be smuggled into Thailand.
Police were searching for the truck's driver and members of the smuggling gang they believed arranged the trip.
The truck's owner, who was detained for questioning, claimed he was unaware the vehicle was being used to transport migrants from Myanmar, police said. He was not under arrest.
The survivors told police they arrived in Ranong province, about 290 miles south of Bangkok, from Myanmar's Victoria Point by fishing boat Wednesday night, Kraithong said.
There are about a million Myanmar workers registered to work in Thailand, and an additional million estimated to be working here illegally. Large numbers of illegal migrants also come from Thailand's other poor neighbors, Cambodia and Laos.
The illegal workers lack legal protection and are often ruthlessly exploited.
The incident was reminiscent of the deaths in 2001 of 58 illegal Chinese migrants in a sweltering tomato truck in Britain, which exposed the murky underworld of people-smuggling gangs profiting from migrants who hope to earn a living in more developed countries.