Police have confirmed that at least 20 people were found dead in an abandoned truck in Vienna, Austria, and that number could potentially rise to 50. The victims are thought to be migrants.
The director of the police in the eastern state of Burgenland, Hans-Peter Doskozil, said during a news conference on Austria’s public broadcaster that the death toll has yet to be determined, New York Times reports. Doskozil added that determining the number is difficult due to the advanced state of decomposition of some of the bodies.
The truck was found Thursday morning by an employee of the company that monitors Austria’s autobahns or federal highway system, according to The Washington Post. The worker alerted police around 11:40 a.m. that the truck, which has Hungarian license plates, was in the emergency lane of a highway that links Vienna and Budapest near the Hungarian border.
The truck had been there since Wednesday, Aug. 19, Doskozil said. The people inside the truck reportedly died from suffocation. Police are unsure how long they had been in the truck, but the bodies were already decaying.
A reporter for Britian’s Channel 4 News, Lindsey Hilsum, saw the scene. “Just drove past truck on A4 in Austria with 50 dead refugees inside. Terrible smell of death as we passed,” Hilsum tweeted.
Chief of staff to Hungary’s Prime Minister Janos Lazar said that authorities think the truck was part of a human trafficking operation. He added that the victims were “illegal migrants who were trying to reach the West through Hungary or with the help of Hungarians.” According to The Post, the migrants were thought to be Syrian, meaning they had been on a long journey.
Hungarian investigators are assisting Austrians in the case. The investigators are set to look for clues in the cabin of the truck in hopes of identifying the driver, Doskozil said.
Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner called Thursday a “dark day” in a news conference, Deutsche Welle reports. “The tragedy affects us all. Traffickers are criminals,” Mikl-Leitner added.
This is not the only truck that has been discovered this week. Police brought in a truck on Tuesday carrying 34 migrants. The migrants told police they could “barely breathe” in the truck that had carried them from the Serbian border to Austria nonstop.
Hungary has begun speeding up the process of building a fence along Serbia’s border in an effort to block tens of thousands of migrants who have traveled up the Balkans in the past few weeks. The fence will likely cut off the accessible route for the migrants, most of whom are fleeing from wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, according to NY Times.