Houston reporter Frank Bajak headed to San Antonio with an overriding goal: Get an interview with a survivor of the immigrant-smuggling nightmare that claimed the lives of 10 people in the suffocating heat of a nearly sealed tractor-trailer.
The challenge was daunting. Survivors had been distributed among seven hospitals in the pre-dawn hours on the Sunday they were discovered in the truck outside a Walmart, with immigration and border patrol guards standing vigil outside their rooms.Bajak, a veteran former Latin America correspondent who is fluent in Spanish, began his work at an evening vigil outside San Antonio’s San Fernando Cathedral. There, a Mexican consular official gave Bajak a tip: She had just directed some relatives of survivors to North Central Baptist Hospital.Bajak immediately drove there, only to learn from people in the waiting room of the intensive care unit that the relatives had gone. Approaching a nurse, he asked about the survivors. To his surprise, the nurse provided him with the room numbers of three men who were out of intensive care. “They’re all actually in pretty good shape,” she said. She finally asked Bajak who he was when he asked for the names of the men, and he identified himself as a journalist.Bajak left, planning to call two of the men who shared a room. Only later did he learn the room had no telephone.
Bajak returned to the hospital early Monday morning. As a janitor vacuumed the empty ICU waiting room, Bajak positioned himself in a chair facing the hall with Room 462, where two survivors were recuperating. A uniformed border patrol guard was sitting outside.When the guard walked down the hall and got on an elevator with two Mexican consular officials Bajak waited a bit to make sure he wasn’t coming right back. He then made for the room. Inside were two young men. Bajak identified himself and asked both for their cell phone numbers so he could call them later.One refused, but the other wrote down his number. Bajak jotted the name on the man’s hospital ID bracelet, Adan Lalravega, left his business card and went downstairs to a quiet area just above the lobby to call. But the Mexican cell phone number just kept ringing busy.So Bajak devised a new plan. A few hours later, around lunchtime, the border patrol agent stepped away again, and Bajak entered the room, iPhone at the ready. “I was on the phone with my wife,” explained the man, whose last name was actually spelled Lara Vega. He agreed to talk, as he sat up in his hospital bed, shirtless, eating lunch.A few minutes into the interview, Bajak said, “I really want to get this on video,” and again asked Lara Vega to describe how a smuggler at a safe house near the border had assured him the truck would be air-conditioned. Bajak figured he couldn’t risk more than about 15 minutes before the border guard returned. In one of his last questions, he asked if Lara Vega didn’t think it ill-advised to climb into a hot, dark tractor-trailer already jammed with other people. “A person makes decisions without thinking through the consequences, but, well thanks to God here we are,” he responded.
Revisiting the man’s room a few hours later to re-check the spelling of his name, Bajak was recognized by the nurse on duty the night before and escorted from the building by security.Bajak was the only reporter on a highly competitive story to speak directly to a survivor of the tragedy. His cross-format coverage played widely in Texas, across the country and in Mexico.Bajak’s beat was just one highlight of the AP’s reporting on the tragedy. Iowa news editor Scott McFetridge and correspondent Ryan J. Foley reported exclusive details of the past legal and financial problems of the Iowa trucking company that owned the tractor-trailer. Louisville’s Claire Galofaro persuaded the driver’s fiance in Kentucky to speak with her and obtained records showing the driver’s Florida commercial trucker’s license had been suspended. Helping to flesh out the story was Houston reporter Nomaan Merchant as well as Austin correspondent Will Weissert and San Antonio-based photographer Eric Gay, the first AP journalists on the scene.For persistence in getting a scoop that gave AP’s customers something they could get nowhere else, Bajak wins this week’s Best of the States prize.