SAN ANTONIO – Adan Lara Vega said he was told the $5,500 he was being charged to be smuggled into the United States would include an air-conditioned truck ride.
Instead, the 27-year-old Mexican laborer climbed with his friends into a pitch-black, metal tractor-trailer compartment that lacked ventilation — a deadly oven that would claim 10 lives.
"After an hour I heard ... people crying and asking for water. I, too, was sweating and people were despairing," Lara Vega told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Monday from his bed in a San Antonio hospital. "That's when I lost consciousness."
By the time he regained it Sunday, he was in the hospital, where his ID bracelet identified him by the last name Lalravega. Mexican consulate and U.S. officials later told AP the correct spelling was Lara Vega.
He told the AP it all started when he climbed aboard the tractor-trailer in the border city of Laredo, Texas, with six friends from the state of Aguascalientes after the group waited nearly two weeks in a safe house.
"The guy we were with in the house told us they'd be putting us in a refrigerated compartment, a refrigerated compartment with air. But that didn't happen," he said.
The trailer was already full of people when the door opened up on a Laredo street. Lara Vega said it was so dark he couldn't see how many there were. A few were children, he said, whose voices he later heard begging for water.
He said the smugglers didn't offer passengers water, and he and his friends hadn't brought any with them. The ride to San Antonio would only be 150 miles (240 kilometers).
Lara Vega said he never saw the driver of the tractor-trailer. He said that when people are being smuggled, they are told not to look at the faces of their handlers — and it's a good idea to obey.
The packed tractor-trailer was found early Sunday outside a Walmart store. As many as eight passengers were dead, and two more would soon die. The driver has been charged in the deaths.
When Lara Vega woke up, he was in a hospital tossing and turning. He said he tried to get up "but I lost my balance and fell."
"I needed to drink a lot of water to get control of myself," he said, recounting his story in Spanish while eating lunch in his hospital bed, cardiac-monitoring sensor still affixed to his bare chest. He was no longer attached to an intravenous drip for rehydration.
Lara Vega, a spare, muscular man with a trim mustache and thick black eyebrows, said all his friends survived as far as he knew, though some were hospitalized. Some have cousins and siblings in San Antonio, he said. A fellow smuggled immigrant was in the hospital bed next to him, but declined to speak with a reporter.
Another passenger on the truck told investigators that he also was from Aguascalientes. Before the trucked reached its final destination, he said, the immigrants were given different colored tape "to identify to the waiting smugglers which group they would be picking up." When the truck stopped, the rear doors were opened and people started swarming out. Six black SUVs were waiting and were filled within a matter of minutes before driving off. The man, identified only by his initials, said he did not see who opened the trailer doors nor did he see the truck driver, according to a criminal complaint filed against the driver.
Lara Vega, who didn't pay the smugglers, said he was hoping for a construction job. This was his second attempt to enter the United States. He said he was deported when he tried three years ago but decided to take another chance because the economy is depressed where he lives with his wife, 4-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son.
"A person makes decisions without thinking through the consequences," he said, "but, well, thanks to God, here we are."
Lara Vega said he didn't know his legal status. Mexican consular officials say they are providing legal representation for the survivors and that Lara Vega had been visited by one.