The grandmother placed her head in her hands and began to sob.
“She didn’t have to suffer,” Adela Aguilar said, shaking her head as she recalled the moment when her granddaughter bid her farewell last month.
Adela Ramírez had just turned 28 and made a major decision: She was leaving Cuyamel, a small town in northwest Honduras, and heading to the United States.
“I told her – ‘Don’t go. Here you live well. Here you can live anywhere you want, working,’” Aguilar told CNN affiliate Televicentro.
Still, Aguilar said her granddaughter was convinced she’d find a better life in the United States, where her mom and sisters were already living.
Now Aguilar and other family members and friends told Televicentro they’re heartbroken and stunned after learning Ramírez was among dozens of migrants found dead this week in a semi truck in San Antonio, Texas.
Investigators are still working to identify victims in what one Homeland Security Investigations agent called the deadliest human smuggling incident in US history. At least 53 people have died, and some victims could be younger than 18.
Authorities have said migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras are among the dead. And in communities thousands of miles away from San Antonio, devastated family members are beginning to come forward to share stories about their loved ones.
Karen Caballero told reporters that her sons’ journey to the United States was supposed to be the beginning of a new chapter in their lives.
“We planned it together as a family, so that they could have a different life, so that they would achieve their goals and dreams,” she said. “This was the jumping-off point.”
Authorities said her sons, Fernando José Redondo Caballero, 18, and Alejandro Miguel Andino Caballero, 23, were among the victims. Alejandro’s wife, Margie Tamara Paz Grajera, 25, also perished.
Speaking to reporters in front of her home in Las Vegas, Honduras, Caballero recounted how much she adored her sons.
“To me, my sons were always the most beautiful children in my world,” she said.
She told Telemundo that her sons were excited for the journey – the same way they’d been when they were young boys waiting to go to a birthday party. They’d wanted to build her a house with the money they’d earn working in the United States.
“Triumph, and stay focused,” she told them before they left.
The brothers’ grandfather, Miguel Ángel Lara, told CNN en Español he sensed something bad had happened. The family had lost contact with them, he said, and then he learned about the tragedy in San Antonio.
“Someone told me, ‘Look at the TV.’ And I looked, and I said, my boys are there.”
Back in Cuyamel, Adela Ramirez’s loved ones told Televicentro they were struggling to come to terms with her death.
“We were like sisters,” said Claudia Vallecillo, a close friend.
“I can’t believe the news,” Vallecillo said as she showed Televicentro the home where Ramírez had lived with her mother and sisters.
Balloons from Ramírez’s recent birthday celebration are still in the living room, near the motorcycle she used to ride. Sandals and high heels are lined up against the wall in her bedroom, where a pile of photos includes an image from her 2015 graduation from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Institute in Puerto Cortés, Honduras, with a specialty in business administration.
“Here I am, and seeing her things, I feel even worse,” Vallecillo said.
Ramírez’s mother and sisters had all left for the United States within the past year or so, family members told Televicentro.
And Ramírez left to join them last month, Vallecillo said. The two friends kept in contact throughout her journey.
On Monday morning, Ramírez sent Vallecillo a series of text message asking her to keep a secret.
“I’m in the USA now. … But don’t tell anyone,” she wrote.
“Now I am going to be with my mama and my sisters,” Vallecillo says Ramírez told her.
But Ramírez never had a chance to reunite with her family. Later that day, the truck was found in San Antonio.
As they mourn, Vallecillo says Ramírez’s loved ones are hoping officials will help transport her remains back to her hometown.
“We ask the government to help us and send us her body so we can bury her here,” she said, “to see her for the last time.”