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UPDATE (11 P.M.):
The death toll has increased to 8, while several remain in critical condition, according to Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez.
BROWNSVILLE — Police are still investigating whether a driver who crashed into a group of people waiting for a bus Sunday morning on North Minnesota Avenue across from a community shelter did it on purpose, because he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The crash at 8:30 a.m. left seven people dead and 10 injured, Brownsville police spokesman Martin Sandoval said.
By mid-afternoon the victims, many of them Venezuelan immigrants just arrived in the U.S., were being comforted inside the Bishop Enrique San Pedro Ozanam Center by grief counselors dispatched there by the Brownsville Independent School District, Ozanam Center Executive Director Victor Maldonado said.
Maldonado said he and immigrants housed at the shelter watched in horror from picnic tables on the shelter’s front lawn as an SUV headed south on Minnesota toward Boca Chica Boulevard at a high rate of speed veered off course and crashed into about 20 people waiting for a city bus.
Two Venezuelans who escaped the crash virtually unscathed said they and many of the others who didn’t fare so well were waiting for a bus to take them to the central bus station in downtown Brownsville and transportation out of the city.
Luis Herrera said he had walked to the Mexico-U.S. border from Colombia and had been allowed to enter the U.S. a week ago. He said firemen and ambulances arrived to the scene minutes after the crash, and expressed gratitude for the care he and the other victims were receiving.
He said the driver of the vehicle was shouting obscenities critical of the immigrants just as the crash occurred, saying the immigrants were invading the U.S.
Herrera said he and companion Jesus Ferrer of Maracaibo, Venezuela, were waiting to take a city bus to the terminal downtown to catch a bus for San Antonio and connect with family elsewhere in the U.S.
He said despite the attack he understands that all people are not bad.
“Este hombre era malisimo. Que culpa tengo yo? Mi pais no sirve,” he said, meaning the driver was very bad, and asking what fault was it of his that his own country doesn’t function?
Maldonado disputed Herrera’s account, saying the driver probably was extremely intoxicated.
Sandoval said police have confirmed that the driver was Hispanic and a Brownsville resident. He was under arrest and being cared for at a local hospital.
Victims at the scene said the vehicle was a Range Rover.
Sandoval said police investigators were pursuing two possible explanations for the incident: that the driver was intoxicated and lost control of his vehicle, or that he purposely drove into the crowd.
Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez’s office tweeted that there was no indication the crash was a purposeful act.
Sunday afternoon the investigation was awaiting the results of toxicology tests and other details.
The Ozanam Center website lists a capacity of 200 people, but Maldonado said it is over capacity and he expects the situation to get worse. The center is working with other local non-profits like the Good Neighbor Settlement House, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and the respite center at the Immaculate Conception Cathedral to get ready for more immigrants and asylum seekers as restrictions are scheduled to ease this week.
He said perhaps the incident could have been avoided if there had been a waiting area for bus riders like there are at bus stops in other locations in the city.
Until recently the city was taking recent arrivals to the center, but that has stopped and Ozanam Center vans are now picking up immigrants at the bus station and taking them to the shelter.
The center receives 300-plus immigrants every day, a number that has increased lately. Maldonado said he expects numbers to increase once Title 42 expires Thursday. The center needs soap and sodas among other items. Hotel-size soap bars are cut in half, regular size bars in quarters, to serve more people.
Bishop Daniel Flores of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brownsville issued the following statement regarding the Sunday morning crash of a vehicle into a crowd of people waiting for a bus on North Minnesota Avenue:
“We mourn and are shocked by the horrific loss of the lives of the seven immigrant men from Venezuela who were killed when a vehicle crashed into them this morning in Brownsville. And we pray for several others who were injured and are in serious condition.
“This tragedy occurred this morning outside the Enrique San Pedro Ozanam Center, a place that has served the homeless and immigrants for decades. Over the past several months in particular Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has worked closely with the Ozanam Center in Brownsville to help provide humanitarian aid to the immigrant population as they seek shelter while making arrangements to meet with their families further north. This is done as an assistance to, and with the cooperation of government authorities.
“The safety, protection and assistance of the immigrant men, women and children who have been given permission to stay in the United States remains a priority for the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville and for our generous staff and volunteers at Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
“We must resist the corrosive tendency to devalue the lives of immigrants, the poor, and the vulnerable. Let us take extra steps as a local community to care for and protect one another, especially the most vulnerable.
“As we await a fuller report from law enforcement authorities, let us stop for a moment to mourn these losses of life and to pray. Pray for the victims, pray for their families and loved ones, and pray for our community. And after we pray, let us continue our common efforts to serve those most in need.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated with a statement from Bishop Daniel Flores.