updated 4/9/2008 9:02:50 PM ET 2008-04-10T01:02:50

Fifty-four migrant workers from Myanmar suffocated in the back of a seafood truck in southern Thailand while being smuggled to the popular resort island of Phuket, police said Thursday.

But 47 workers survived the incident late Wednesday in Ranong province and flagged down police for help, police Col. Kraithong Chanthongbai said. Twenty-one were hospitalized while the rest were detained for questioning, he said.

"When police got to the scene, they found that 54 of the workers were already dead in the packed container truck," Kraithong said.

Of the dead, 37 were women and 17 were men. Police did not immediately know what jobs they were heading for, but illegal Myanmar immigrants in that region generally work in the fishing and construction industries or as maids.

Police were searching for the truck's driver, who had fled the scene and members of the smuggling gang they believed arranged the trip.

Kraithong blamed the driver for failing to turn on the air conditioning in the back of the truck, which normally was used to transport seafood.

The surviving workers told police they snuck into Ranong province from Myanmar's Victoria Point by fishing boat Wednesday night and were then packed into a small container truck for a trip to Phuket.

But after two hours, the workers told police that many of them began falling sick because of poor ventilation in the truck, Kraithong said.

The driver stopped the truck after being alerted to the problem but then fled the scene, Kraithong said.

Ranong province is located about 290 miles south of Bangkok just across from Myanmar's Victoria Point and is regarding as a major trading route between the two countries.

There are about a million Burmese workers registered to work in Thailand and millions more who work mostly as laborers illegally to escape the poverty in their own country, which is one of the poorest in Asia.

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