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Survivors, Relatives Return To Decimated Town For Mass Funeral

May 26, 1987

SARAGOSA, Texas (AP) _ Thousands of people joined the grief-stricken residents of this tiny community today to bury 17 of those killed in a tornado that destroyed the town, leaving little but faith on which to rebuild.

Sixteen caskets, one holding a mother and her baby, were placed in two rows by scores of pallbearers in the little Saragosa cemetery.

There, Bishop Raymond Pena of the El Paso Roman Catholic diocese reminded mourners that while their church had been destroyed in the storm, its foundation was intact.

″The foundation of your faith is equally intact,″ Pena said. ″On that we will build the new community of Saragosa.″

He said the diocese would work with the state to provide financial aid to survivors.

″My commitment is total. I will do everything I can to be of assistance to you,″ the bishop said, amid concern that the Hispanic farming community of 350 may be too impoverished to qualify for federal aid.

Pena said he would talk to state and federal officials about aid to the survivors of the storm, which killed 29, including six children, and injured more than 120.

As the funeral began, a line of priests arrayed in white led the bishop to a flatbed truck from which the Mass was said.

Earlier, earth-moving equipment gouged 12 graves out of the little cemetery. Some of the bodies were to be buried in nearby Balmorhea.

Among those digging the graves for today’s burial was Reeves County Commissioner Ishmael Dutchover. Climbing down from his backhoe, he said, ″I know all these people. They’re dear friends of mine.″

The first funerals were in Pecos Monday for a 25-year-old woman and her son, who were buried a day after what would have been the boy’s first birthday.

Later Monday, more than 1,000 mourners filled the school gymnasium in Balmorhea to pray for the dead and for those who survived. The men’s choir of Santa Rosa Catholic Church in Pecos sang hymns in Spanish, including ″One Day at a Time.″

″These people now have nothing but each other,″ Reeves County Sheriff Raul Florez said on Monday. He estimated damage at $1.4 million.

State Rep. Larry Don Shaw charcterized the town as resembling photographs from Hiroshima.

Saragosa had been home to about 350 people, mostly Mexican-Americans, who owned their homes but had little if any insurance or savings.

″We can use all the help we can get,″ said Gabriel Candeles, 33, whose parents’ store was destroyed. ″These people lost everything they had. They’re homeless, they’ve got no money, and any personal belongings they’ve had they’ve lost.″

Gov. Bill Clements said he would tour Saragosa today, and planned to request federal disaster funds.

But because the town was so improverished, it might not qualify for federal aid, said Dan Wagener, director of disaster services at the American Red Cross center set up in Balmorhea.

If Saragosa is declared a disaster area, its people may qualify for benefits such as low-interest government loans to rebuild. But the declaration might not be enough, said Shaw.

″These people are so poor that they may not even qualify for low-interest loans,″ said Shaw. ″But the big thing is to get them financial aid.″

U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen today was assured by a member of the White House staff that the matter would be resolved soon, and that more paperwork was being awaited, said Bentsen aide Jack DeVore.

While government money is not certain, donations are coming in from as far away as Canada.

In Balmorhea, an American Red Cross disaster center has been getting offers from everywhere, said Susan Clowe, a Red Cross spokeswoman from St. Louis.

″One little girl brought down her piggy bank and gave 89 cents. One man brought in pennies in a paper bag,″ Red Cross volunteer Margaret Burton said. ″People are digging deep and helping.″

Golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez donated $10,000 of his $37,500 first-place winnings from the Silver Pages Classic seniors’ tournament in Oklahoma City this weekend, said Dewanna Florez, the sheriff’s wife. Pecos Jaycees attending their state convention in Corpus Christi passed the hat for $6,100.

At a convention in Odessa on Saturday night, American Legionnaires auctioned off a gold-plated eagle and raised $3,000 to send to the victims.

Shaw said his Austin office is coordinating the Saragosa Capitol Relief Fund, which is accepting money from state government officials and employees.

Pecos High School’s senior class cancelled a graduation dance, instead giving the money it would have cost to the Saragosa survivors.

Meanwhile, vans, pickups, tractor-trailer rigs and station wagons continued to arrive at the disaster center with donations of food, clothing and household items. Among the items were baby formula and baseball caps.

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