TUCSON — An unusually wet winter in Arizona this year has been lethal for people illegally crossing from Mexico into the United States, with nine people dying from hypothermia since November.
The same number of border crossers died of hypothermia during the previous three winters combined.
"When you are wet, your risk is a lot higher," said Bruce Parks, chief medical examiner at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office. "Wet clothing takes the heat away from the body. You've lost that insulation — your body can't react."
The 2.1 inches of rain that fell in Tucson in January made it the eighth-wettest January in Arizona's recorded history, and the wettest since 1993, according to the National Weather Service. And the 0.6 inches of rainfall through the first 10 days of February is nearly double the average for those days, said Ken Drozd of the National Weather Service.
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During one particularly wet week in January, the bodies of three people who died of hypothermia were found.
Among them was Enrique Zapata Senduo, a 47-year-old Mexican who died in a pool of muddy water under a cottonwood tree in the desert southwest of Picacho Peak, about 75 miles southeast of Phoenix.
A rancher discovered his soaking-wet body in the late morning on Jan. 26. Zapata left his hometown of Mazatlan, Sinaloa, on Jan. 13 and planned to cross the border near Sasabe illegally, meaning he was likely out in the desert during the rainy days of Jan. 20-23, when nearly 2 inches fell in southern Arizona.
It's possible other illegal border crossers also have died from the cold this year or past years, but the cause of death often can't be determined due to the conditions of the bodies.