ENCINAL, Texas — Encinal Police Sergeant William Butterfield was one of the first local officers to respond when federal border agents came speeding toward his town, chasing a suspected human smuggler driving a rented Jeep northbound on I 35.
"He was going over 100 mph. I was at 129 and I was barely catching up to them," Butterfield said.
What followed, about 40 miles north of the Mexican border, was a devastating crash as the Jeep lost control, left the freeway and slammed into the back of a parked big rig. It is something Butterfield called possibly the worst crash site he has seen in over thirty years of law enforcement.
Four men died and three others were left in critical condition in a truck stop parking lot.
Butterfield said it's hard to believe the increase he has seen in dangerous behavior by smugglers.
"Every day we are seeing anything from one chase to seven chases. We've had as many as 15 chases in one day. It's gotten absolutely ridiculous because when I first started here we would get one a week," Butterfield said.
Rolling up on the crash site a moment after it happened, Butterfield said the damage was overwhelming, but what's really disturbing he said is "They're getting worse because they're running every time. I don't know what to do to tell these people, the answer isn't to run! Just stop!" Butterfield explained, adding "Yeah, you're going to get consequences but it's a lot better than being dead!"
Lt. Angel Esparza with Encinal Police said the front seat passenger and three men in the middle seat of the Jeep died. They are believed to be from Mexico and Guatemala.
The driver, who is said to be an 18-year-old U.S. citizen, was taken by air ambulance to a San Antonio hospital in critical condition.
Two other survivors who were in the very back of the Jeep also made it to hospitals for treatment, but condition updates were not available.
Esparza said Encinal officers were faced with an immediate challenge as they arrived on scene.
"Our officers instantly went from catching the suspect to rendering aid, bringing first aid to the victims," Esparza said.
Speaking of those who died, DPS Sgt. Erick Estrada said "As of now, we know that two of them are from Guatemala, one of them is from Mexico, and the other one we haven't identified yet." Estrada said they believe the two other injured men are also from Guatemala but they are still trying to sort everything out.
The Consul General of Mexico, Juan Carlos Mendoza, was at the scene. He said he believed one survivor and one of the men who died are from Mexico. He said he would be doing whatever he could to assist the families cope with the challenges of helping their loved ones.
The driver of the big rig was not injured. He told investigators he was inside the truck stop taking a short break and that he was surprised to step outside and find his truck surrounded by law enforcement and a scene of grinding devastation.
They say first responders worked hard and fast to remove the men from the crumpled vehicle, but it appears as if they died on impact.
As for how the investigation will progress, Estrada said "We are the main investigators for the crash. As for the criminal act that this person was doing, I believe we will be working in collaboration with federal authorities but that's going to come later on down the road."
Estrada said state troopers are working to reduce this type of tragic incident.
"Under the direction of the Governor, we are increasing our enforcement actions here on this interstate to try to deter crime like this occurring, "Estrada said.
It's unknown how long it will take to identify the men.