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GUATEMALA CITY — Simple advice from a friend to stay near the door may have saved Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás from the deadly fate that befell 53 other migrants when they were abandoned trapped in a sweltering semi-trailer last week on the edge of San Antonio.
Speaking by phone from her hospital bed Monday, the 20-year-old from Guatemala's capital said it was already hot on June 27 when she stepped out of the warehouse on the Texas side of the Mexico border where she had been waiting and climbed into the back of the trailer.
She said the smugglers confiscated their cellphones and covered the trailer's floor with what she believes was powdered chicken bouillon, apparently to throw off any dogs at checkpoints. As she sat stuffed inside the stifling trailer with dozens of others, the powder stung her skin.
Remembering her friend's caution to stay near the door where it would be cooler, Cardona Tomás shared the advice with another friend she had made during the journey.
"I told a friend that we shouldn't go to the back and should stay near (the entrance), in the same place without moving," said Cardona Tomás, who is being treated at Methodist Hospital Metropolitan in San Antonio. That friend survived, too.
As the truck moved on, making additional stops to pick up more migrants, people began to cluster near the door like Cardona Tomás. She had no way to track the time.
"The people were yelling, some cried. Mostly women were calling for it to stop and to open the doors because it was hot, that they couldn't breathe," she said, still laboring a bit to speak after being intubated at the hospital.
She said the driver or someone else in the cab yelled back that "we were about to arrive, that there were 20 minutes left, six minutes."
The people were yelling, some cried. Mostly women were calling for it to stop and to open the doors because it was hot, that they couldn't breathe.
–Yenifer Yulisa Cardona Tomás
"People asked for water, some had run out, others carried some," she said.
The truck would continue stopping occasionally, but just before she lost consciousness it was moving slowly. She woke up in the hospital.
The driver and three others were arrested and charged by U.S. prosecutors.
Guatemala's Foreign Ministry has said that 20 Guatemalans died in the incident, 16 of whom have been positively identified. Foreign Minister Mario Búcaro said he hoped the first bodies would be repatriated this week.
Cardona Tomás said the truck's destination that day was Houston, though she was ultimately headed to North Carolina.
"She didn't have a job and asked me if I would support her" in migrating to the U.S., her father, Mynor Cardona, said Monday in Guatemala City, where the family lives. He said he knew of other cases of children who just left without telling their families and ended up disappearing or dying so he decided to back her.
He paid $4,000 for a smuggler — less than half the total cost — to take her to the U.S. She left Guatemala on May 30, traveling in cars, buses and finally the semi-trailer in Texas.
"I didn't know that she would travel in a trailer," he said. "She told us it would be by foot. It seems like at the last moment the smugglers decided to put (her) in the trailer, along with two more friends, who survived. One of them is still in critical condition."
Cardona had stayed in touch with his daughter up until the morning of June 27. Her last message to him that Monday was at 10:28 a.m. in Guatemala, or 11:28 a.m. in Texas. "We're going to go in an hour," she wrote.
It was not until late that night that Cardona Tomás' family learned of the abandoned trailer. It was two more days before relatives in the United States confirmed that she was alive and hospitalized.
"We cried so much," Cardona said. "I even was thinking where we were going to have the wake and bury her. She is a miracle."