By Jim Forsyth and Jared Taylor
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - The death toll rose to 15 on Tuesday from Sunday's crash in southern Texas of a pickup truck packed with 23 suspected illegal immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, and authorities blamed the accident on a tire that came apart.
Eight people remained hospitalized following the horrific single-vehicle wreck - the second multiple-fatality accident in the region in the past three months that involved smuggling people in overloaded vehicles.
The driver, who was killed, apparently was smuggling illegal immigrants to Houston, where they hoped to find jobs, said Trooper Gerald Bryant of the Texas Department of Public Safety. The dead included 12 males and three females, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said. Two children died.
Investigators say that the right front tire of a Ford F-250 pickup truck packed with 23 people came apart as the vehicle rounded a curve on U.S. Highway 59 near Goliad on Sunday night, pulling the vehicle to the right and causing the driver to slam into a tree.
"The more people he can pack into a vehicle and get through, the more money he makes," Captain Tom Copeland of the Goliad County Sheriff's Office said of smugglers.
Investigators have fingerprinted the crash victims and are working to identify them using photographs from people who suspect their relatives may be among the dead and injured.
"It's just a tragedy for the families ... that are wondering if their family members made it," said Copeland, who was at the crash scene Sunday night.
In April, nine of 17 illegal immigrants in a packed minivan were killed when the vehicle rolled over while being pursued by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the border with Mexico in Palmview. The suspected driver, a 15-year-old boy, and six others were charged in that crash.
Highway 59 is a well-traveled route for immigrant smugglers between the Mexico border and Houston. It was along that road, just northeast of the location of Sunday's accident, that a truck driver unhitched a milk trailer packed with dozens of undocumented immigrants in 2003. By the time officials opened the trailer, 19 people had died, and the pickup driver was later sentenced to prison.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Will Dunham)