EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – A day after Rio Grande water reached El Paso-area irrigation canals, first responders pulled out a first victim from the fast-moving currents.
El Paso Fire Department crews were called out around 10 p.m. to Border Highway near the Padres Drive exit to assist the U.S. Border Patrol with the rescue of a person that either fell or tried to swim across the canal.
A video obtained by KTSM shows EPFD personnel trying to revive the person pulled from the water and place the individual in an ambulance for transport to a hospital. No information is yet available on who the victim was, but Border Patrol officials said the canals that run a few feet north of the border wall are often a death trap for migrants who are trying to evade detection.
“Anybody who tries to cross the water, even if they’re a good swimmer, is likely to be sucked down. It is a very dangerous way to cross,” said Sean Coffey, a Border Patrol spokesman in El Paso. “Last night we had our first fatality after the release of the water. Unfortunately, the subject did not survive. He was recovered by Fire Department and taken to a hospital, but he did not survive.”
The Border Patrol since last month had been warning migrants that the water was on the way and urging them to pursue legal paths of entry rather than putting their lives at risk.
“Every year the El Paso Sector performs numerous rescues and recoveries, not only from canals but from exposure in the desert, falls from the border wall and others,” Coffey said. Last June alone, 21 migrants drowned in the canals.
Border Patrol officials said many of the victims did not know about the existence of the canals and the danger of their current. Rio Grande water visible from the Mexican side is seldom more than ankle deep and all the migrants see beyond that is the steel bollards barrier.
“The smugglers will help them over the border wall but they don’t tell them about other obstacles like the canals. When they see the water, it looks calm but these structures are designed to self-clean. The currents beneath are very strong,” Coffey said.
Border Patrol agents are primarily law enforcement officers, but many are trained in CPR, and some are paramedics and emergency medical technicians. When they are dealing with life-and-death situations in the canals, they’re often the first to attempt a rescue before ambulances and fire department personnel arrive on the scene.
Coffey, who has trained for water rescues, said the agency keeps field lockers all along the canals filled with equipment such as “throw bags” and life savers. The bags are rope coiled at the end that unrolls to allow victim and agents to adjust to the pull of the current.
“We toss a throw bag into the water, and they (the migrants) catch that rope and we guide them to the canal wall so we can get them out of the water. Because of the flow, we can’t take someone directly out; we have to let them float until they get closer to the wall and we pull them out,” Coffey said. “The current adds to the weight of the person, so often it takes three to four agents to pull them out.”
The chest-deep canal water becomes even more dangerous when it rains. Spillage tends to flow into storm drains in West El Paso where migrants who evaded arrest at the border wall often hide.
“We have our BORSTAR rescue team and then we have our Confined Spaces rescue team that looks for people in the storm drains and manholes,” Coffey said.