Adel resident Colleen Krantz publicly released her first documentary, &ldquo;Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation&rdquo; at a screening Saturday at the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center in Denison, the town where 11 dead illegal immigrants were found in a railcar on Oct. 15, 2002. <em>Daily Times Herald photo by Betsy Simon</em>
Adel resident Colleen Krantz publicly released her first documentary, “Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation” at a screening Saturday at the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center in Denison, the town where 11 dead illegal immigrants were found in a railcar on Oct. 15, 2002. Daily Times Herald photo by Betsy Simon
Monday, October 4, 2010

DENISON — News reports referred to them simply as “human remains” upon the Oct. 15, 2002 discovery of 11 dead illegal immigrants inside a railcar in Denison.

But eight years later, those once unidentified remnants took on the faces of brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers from Mexico and Central America, when they appeared on the big screen in former Des Moines Register journalist Colleen Krantz’s first documentary, “The Train to Nowhere: Inside an Immigrant Death Investigation,” which held its initial public screening Saturday at the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center in Denison.

Iowa Public Television will also air “Train to Nowhere” at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 12 — three days before the eighth anniversary of the discovery at the Denison FSC/ADM plant.

The 58-minute film includes interviews with University of Iowa’s Mark Blumberg, a behavioral neuroscientist, who painted an unthinkable picture of the railcar’s conditions, after the entrances were sealed and the train set off for what was only supposed to be an one- to two-hour ride.

“Any water they would have had would have been gone through quickly, and every time the train stopped it would have been a hellish nightmare,” he said.

UI departmental executive officer with the Department of Integrative Physiology Kevin Kregel said to
imagine “sealing yourself in a 160-degree oven.”

“They would have become fatigued, nauseated and dizzy, and delusions would have eventually led to a coma,” he said.

Being caught and deported would have been a small price for the victims to pay, given what they had to endure, Kregel said.

“At some point they would have been less concerned about getting caught, and they would have started to scream for help, understanding that there was no other solution,” he said. “It’s impossible to believe that they would not have done anything they could to get out because that’s what one does when they’re faced with dire circumstances.”

After the victims succumbed to the elements and their remains were discovered in Iowa, following four months storage in Oklahoma, retired U.S. immigration officer Alozan Martinez gives insight into the criminal investigation that led to a conviction of two of the four persons believed to be responsible for the 11 deaths.

Former train conductor Arnulfo Flores, of Kingsville, Texas, who was sentenced to 41 months behind bars for providing train schedules to the smugglers, was interviewed for the film following an early release from prison.

He stands firm on his belief that he wasn’t responsible for what happened.

“I’m sorry for what happened, but I had nothing to do with it,” he said. “I thought I was helping them by getting the train schedules. Those people wanted to come over here.”

Smuggler Juan Fernando Licea-Cedillo, of Mexico, who was sentenced to 292 months imprisonment, declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

Rogelio Hernandez Ramos, of Mexico, was eventually found in his home country, but Krantz said, before he’s extradited to the U.S., Mexico wants assurance Ramos won’t receive the death penalty.

Only Guillermo Madrigal Ballesteros, of Mexico, remains a fugitive in the case.

It’s Ballesteros’ ability to elude authorities years later that still eats at Eliseo Acevedo, a New York resident and once illegal U.S. immigrant, whose brother, Byron, 18, of Guatemala, was among the 11 victims.

“All I want now is for Guillermo to be caught, and I hope I can go to Iowa and see the car where my brother’s body was found,” said Acevedo.

“When I flew home with his body after the discovery, my brother flew home in a box. It was the worst thing to have to go through. Life has still gone on without (Byron), but it’s not like it used to be.”

Byron didn’t survive long enough to pursue the American dream he was hoping for when he crossed the border.

But his story still captivated the audience of more than two dozen who watched his tale explained on screen.

 Krantz said she was pleased with how much the topic still appeals to the public nearly eight years later.

“It was fitting that we come back to Denison for the first showing because this is where the story first started, and I was happy with the turnout, especially since it’s a Saturday during harvest season,” she said. “I’ve been told by Iowa Public Television to expect the screening on TV to bring in about 70 viewers — the most viewers they usually get for documentaries.”

But this isn’t just any documentary, said Jan Blunk, of Ricketts, who attended Saturday’s screening.

It’s a story that posed more questions than answers, and she said she was glad the documentary could fill in blanks about the people and circumstances that led to the tragedy.

“Everybody was shocked that such a thing could be found in Denison of all places,” she said. “It left everyone stunned. Knowing that it could have been prevented with a better search of the railcars or at the border makes you think.”

Unlike many of the white viewers at the first screening, Juan Carlos Montanez, a Latino from Denison, said he could relate to the immigrants going to such lengths to enter the U.S.

“My own relatives came to the U.S. illegally, and I remember when I was growing up I would hear stories about their struggles to cross the border,” he said. “The story of the 11 people found dead is a story of my own people coming to this country.

“I’m glad it is available for the public to hear because we’re a country made up of immigrants. That’s something no one should forget.”