Heat and Tragedy in a Rail Car, Summer 2002
Denison, Crawford County, Iowa
Humans and the weather are intimate bedfellows even though we have worked hard to try to protect ourselves from too much rain, too little rain, too much cold, too much heat. Some people’s circumstances—their jobs, their homes—are more easily protected from the weather than others. Some aren’t protected at all.
In 2005 writer Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson wrote a book about Crawford County, Iowa—its county seat Denison in particular. Denison gives the book its title but its subtitle is “Searching for the Soul of America Through the Secrets of a Midwest Town.” Such a subtitle gives Denison and similar small cities and towns the importance they deserve.
Maharidge, not a native of the town, comes to live and write among its citizens in part because of a tragedy that occurred there in 2002. On June 15, 2002, seven men and four women, eleven young people aged 18 to 36 from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico heading north for work, “climbed into an empty blue Union Pacific railroad grain car” in Harlingen, Texas. Someone sealed the hatch. The sealed hatch was to place the railcar above suspicion by immigration authorities. Near Corpus Christi, Texas, someone was supposed to unseal the hatch and let them out. Instead the railcar went to Oklahoma where it remained in storage through the summer.
At harvest time the car was sent to Iowa, to a grain elevator in Denison. When a worker opened the sealed hatch the bodies of the eleven people were discovered, mummified by heat and time. The Crawford County Sheriff Tom Hogan noted that the bodies were arrayed in a circle with their feet pointing toward the center, like the petals of a flower.
In the 1870s and 1880s the early settlers in Denison found their lives changed by an influx of immigrants whose habits and language differed from theirs. Most of these immigrants were Germans. A century and a quarter later, by 2004, a third, perhaps even a half, of the residents were natives of Central America and their descendants. The tragedy of 2002 is a vivid reminder of the perils of travelling North: among those perils are the heat of summer and the cold of winter.
Sources: SHSI: Anna Marie Schneller, Crawford County Iowa, Vol 1 1850-1925, Crawford County Historical Society, 1982; Dale Maharidge with Michael Williamson, Dennison, Iowa, New York, 2005.