Tornado Victims Seek Aid, Wonder About Future
May. 25, 1987
SARAGOSA, Texas (AP) _ Survivors of a tornado that destroyed this community began to bury their 29 dead today and seek help for themselves as they wondered how to return to a town that no longer exists.
''People who established this town were pioneers ... the people of Saragosa are pioneers again,'' said Rep. Ron Coleman, D-El Paso, who was among the 500 people attending an outdoor Mass on Sunday in memory of those killed.
More than 120 people were injured, and six of those killed were children. About half the deaths occurred at a Head Start preschool graduation.
The first funeral for the victims was held this morning in Pecos for a 25- year-old woman and her son, who would have been a year old on Sunday. Two mass funerals are planned for Tuesday.
Friday's tornado reduced this 76-year-old farming community, whose 350 residents were mostly poor Mexican-Americans, to rubble.
''I really don't expect it will be rebuilt. I don't think they can afford it,'' said the Rev. Ralph Barranger, who serves Christ the King Church.
Some said they would move away.
''I don't like this place anymore. Too much has died,'' said Frank Ramirez, who escaped serious injury when the tornado leveled his house.
As front-end loaders and dump trucks hauled away splintered houses, crumpled cars and cracked adobe, volunteers in nearby Balmorhea were being trained to interview the survivors in preparation for today's opening of a disaster relief center.
Local Red Cross spokeswoman Susan Clowe said the relief center opened this morning, and volunteers are interviewing families to determine their needs for food, clothing, shelter and emergency medical care.
''These people are in shock. We're just trying to find out what they need, whether it be anything from payment for the funeral to long-term help in terms of rebuilding or furnishing their homes,'' Ms. Clowe said.
''We'll be here as long as it takes to meet people's needs,'' said Dan Wagener, director of the American Red Cross effort in Balmorehea.
Offers of aid have been received from as far away as Canada. Bishop Raymond Pena said he has asked all 76 churches in his El Paso diocese to make a special appeal for help.
Wagener said that although response has been good, the needs of victims stretched beyond food.
''You can't measure a disaster by the number of houses that are destroyed. You have to look at how it affects the community,'' he said.
At the site of what used to be Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, about 500 people gathered Sunday, some weeping, to hear a Mass by Pena.
''While our hearts are heavy, God is still with us,'' he said, standing on a flat-bed truck.
''Non-believers now will question our faith in God. But for us, the words that Jesus speaks to us in the gospel today, 'I will not abandon you,' is a sign that God hears our prayers.''
On either side of the bishop stood statues of Jesus and Joseph that somehow survived with only slight damage.
''The fact that the statue of the Lord remained intact was of great comfort to the people,'' Pena said. ''The first thing they said to me was, 'Look, our altar is still there, the statues are still there.' I looked at the statues' survival as a sign of God's love.''
Sunday morning, 36 hours after the tornado hit, 12-year-old Ramiro Ramirez found his pet chihuahua under debris in his house, alive and uninjured, although shaking.
The boy and his father were home when the tornado struck but were not badly hurt.
Most of the more than 120 injured had been treated and released from hospitals by Saturday afternoon. A few were hospitalized in serious condition.
The tornado leveled a community hall where about 100 people had gathered for a graduation ceremony for preschool children in a Head Start program.
Among those killed there were Elsa Lara Herrera, and her son, Jonathan. About 250 mourners said a rosary Sunday, which would have been Jonathan's first birthday, for them in Pecos. They were at the ceremonies with Mrs. Herrera's husband, Joey Herrera Jr., a Pecos School Board trustee and guest at the graduation who survived.
Also Sunday, about 75 people attended a memorial service in Balmorhea, where some victims had lived.
''It says in the Bible the poor shall confound the rich, the wise. I think this is a very good example of God's work in the world,'' said Barranger, whose ministry includes Balmorhea.
''Maybe this disaster is being used by God to teach the rich, to teach the wise, what true Christian life is.''