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Citizens, Agencies Offer Helping Hand to Brownsville Victims

July 8, 1988

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) _ Volunteers from across the lower Rio Grande Valley flocked here Friday to donate blood, crawl shirtless through tight spaces and do whatever else they could for victims of a department store collapse.

They ignored temperatures in the 90s and the threat of collapsing rubble to help dig the living and the dead out of the Amigo Store.

″It’s such an overwhelming response to the point that we’ve been asking people to come back later and relieve the people who are tired,″ said police Sgt. Ben Reyna said.

The roof of the popular discount department store crumbled under torrential rain Thursday afternoon. At least 11 died, 47 were injured and an unknown number were missing.

″I’m just here to help somebody who needs help,″ said Mario Camarillo, of Brownsville, who inched his way into a crawl space to help deliver oxygen to survivors trapped in the twisted jungle of concrete and steel.

″You can’t turn your back on them. I hope somebody would do that for me,″ he said.

Some volunteers crawled deep into the rubble through a path cleared by a wiry Freddie Gonzalez, 34, who is 4-foot-8.

″We kept hearing them crying in there, so we kept digging and digging. They were all tangled with wire and pieces of wood,″ said Gonzalez.

Police were not sure how many people and agencies had responded to calls for help by noon Friday, but Reyna said the volunteers came from all over the state and some from across the border Mexico.

Despite the call for volunteers to work in shifts, many were ready to stay until the rescue was complete.

″I’m not even sleepy,″ said Berta Capatillo, 34, of Brownsville. ″I just want to get those people out. I think that’s what’s keeping me awake. I’m hoping they will be alive.″

On Thursday, Ms. Capatillo collected information from families looking for missing relatives or friends. Friday morning, after staying up all night, she was filling Gatorade bottles with ice and passing them out to workers, reporters and bystanders.

Fire engines, huge machinery and portable toilets were set up within a two- block area leading to the site. A store across the street from the ruins was converted into a first-aid area, where survivors were taken and evaluated for medical care.

Arnold Cadena, of the fire department in Pharr, about 50 miles away, kept his ladder truck turned on to run generators providing rescuers with light. The energy also powered an exhaust fan in an effort to draw heat out of the rubble.

″We are like brothers is what it is,″ said Cadena, 28. ″What it is, is an agreement. If we need help - any of us - we’re gonna come out.″

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