2003Breaking News Reporting

City unites in grief, caring

Shawn Regan and Yadira Betances
Staff Writers
December 17, 2002

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LAWRENCE -- This city of immigrants, no stranger to calamity over the years, has come together in anguish and support for the families of four small boys drowned in the Merrimack River on Saturday.

Friends, neighbors and newcomers -- black, brown and white -- contributed food, flowers and money to help the grieving families cope with the enormity of the tragedy.

City officials ordered flags flown at half-staff for the entire week.

Phones were "ringing off the hook" throughout yesterday with calls from those wanting to help, said Rachel Ortiz, the Northbank manager in charge of the Lawrence Children's Memorial Fund, established by the city to help the victims' families. About $1,500 had been contributed by 3 p.m. yesterday.

Some people, Ortiz said, could afford to give only 50 cents. One person gave $500 and another $250. All donations were accompanied by words of heartache and sympathy for the children.

Zoa Mendez, owner of Mendez Flowerloons, said she's been besieged with orders for "baby boy" arrangements of white and light blue flowers. "I'm so sad for the families and the others of these little kids," she said.

Throughout the day and night, friends and strangers have supplied food to the families of the victims.

Eva Rojas, known for her savory Dominican dishes, was prominent among the generous.

"I know exactly how it is because I've been there before," said Rojas.

In 1994, her 7-year-old granddaughter suffocated when her mouth and nose were wrapped in duct tape during a robbery at the family home. As of now, the tragedy galvanized the community and brought an outpouring of sympathy and support from strangers as well as and friends.

"This is my way of giving back," Rojas said.

"You appreciate everything," she said. "Not just the financial contributions. When you see people around you, it makes you feel better."

Mayor Michael J. Sullivan spent the early part of yesterday meeting with family members and later hosted several young friends and family members of the victims in his office and provided them with pizza.

Police Chief John J. Romero handed out plastic police badges and stayed with the children for about an hour.

The deaths of William Rodriguez, 11, Victor Baez, 9, Mackendy Constant, 8, and Christopher Casado, 7, was the worst tragedy on the Merrimack River since 1913, when 11 youths drowned in the collapse of a bathhouse.

Lawrence, a 70,000-population city that is now 60 percent Hispanic, has a history of coping with disaster, from the collapse of the Pemberton Mill in 1860 that claimed 70 lives to devastation of the Malden Mills fire that injured 30 workers in 1995.

As in the past, tragedy brought people together across cultural lines.

Among the orders for flowers at Mendez Flowerloons was one from the Hennessey School, where Thelma Gomez, mother of drowning victim Victor Baez, works with kindergarteners as a teacher's aide.

Her Hennessey friends have surrounded her since Saturday night, preparing meals for her family.

"We have not left her alone, and a group is going back over to be with her this afternoon," Assistant Principal Mary W. Hargreaves said yesterday.

Hargreaves said Gomez has taken the death particularly hard, since she was at the hospital holding Victor's hand as workers pumped his heart and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

"She was begging, 'Keep working on him. Please don't give up,' " Hargreaves said, recalling the story Gomez told her. "To have been there is especially trying for her. She's a very strong lady, but she's devastated by this."

Family of other victims also sought refuge with friends or relatives. Siblings were kept home from school and parents stayed home from work.

Maria Rodriguez, mother of William, one of the four boys who drowned, said she appreciates the help she has been getting from family members and friends, difficult as it is to accept.

"There are moments when I don't want to see anyone, and it's not that I want to be rude, but this pain is unbearable," Rodriguez said.

Elisa Franco and Gina Guzman, aunts of drowning victim Victor Baez, said it's a good thing so many people have come to their aid. "At this time, family members are not strong enough to do anything and it helps," Guzman said.

She recalls her nephew as a "typical boy" who enjoyed basketball, baseball and playing with cars. She had bought him a remote-controlled car for Christmas.

At the Rodriguez family's home yesterday, a make-shift shrine to William shared the corner of the living room by the window with the Christmas tree. William's mother sobbed from time to time, her body wracked with grief. His father, Eufemio, struggled with his composure as he discussed the foundation that had been set up by the city to help the families of the dead children.

"I feel better knowing that people want to help," Rodriguez said in Spanish, his son Eufemio Jr., 17, translating. "But the pain in my family is still here and it will take a long time to go away. Every morning we wake up and the house feels so empty. William had so much energy, he filled the house."

The younger Eufemio said he, too, was grateful for the community support, but that no amount of help will replace his brother.

"It's still like a dream," he said. "I miss him with all my heart. Thank you for everything. Thank you for all your support. But I just don't see the healing.''

At the 11 Clinton Court home of Mackendy Constant, Christmas lights wrapped around the handrail at the front steps were dark. Inside, family members peered from behind a half open door and warm air rushed out from inside a dimly-lit entry. Mackendy's father Jean wiped tired grief from tearless eyes as he discussed the outpouring of help from friends and relatives.

"Nothing can help for the loss of my son," said the Haitian native, who moved his family here eight years ago.

Jacquiline Casado, mother of Christopher and Ivan Casado, was grieving and did not want to comment, said a woman who answered the door at the family's 18 Jasper St. home.

Ysabel Morales, mother of Jaycob Morales, one of the three boys who survived Saturday's fall through the ice, said her son is doing okay. She said he is eager to go back to school and back to the Boys and Girls Club, but that he is still unable to talk about what happened to his friends.

"As soon as he woke up, he asked for food and drink," she said. "But every time he talks about it, he starts crying."

The Rev. Jorge A. Reyes of St. Mary's Church, which will pay to bury three of the boys at its Lawrence cemeteries, spoke of the river tragedy at Sunday Mass, asking parishioners to reach out to the four families. He encouraged even strangers moved by the tragedy to send the families a card or visit them and offer condolences, having himself received a call of support from a fellow priest in Florida.

"This is supposed to be a time of celebration, with Christmas coming, and I'm sure these families have already bought Christmas gifts for these children," Reyes said of the victims' families. "How do you find in your spirit a way of celebrating when you have in your hands such a tragedy?"

Reyes and the Rev. William Waters visited several families last night, meeting with them individually at their homes.

Perhaps the most common question in a tragedy such as this is why, the two priests said.

"We just have to accept God's planning," Reyes said. "We have to put our faith in God that he, in his wisdom, that he somehow knows."

Said Waters, "Sometimes we just have to live without an answer. I know that's not very supportive for people who just lost a loved one, but if we had all the answers, that would make us God, and we're not."

Later yesterday, Eva Rojas, Eufemio Rodriguez and his son Eufemio Jr. paid a visit to the Clinton Court home of Mackendy Constant, the smallest of the boys who drowned. They sat in the sparsely decorated living room on a brown leather sofa talking and sharing tears and embraces with Mackendy's parents, Jean and Julie, and other family members.

Friends sat on folding chairs in another room while others prepared food in a tiny kitchen. Children, including Mackendy's three younger brothers, scampered around the house playing with a motorized skateboard toy.

"We've received support from everywhere," said Mackendy's uncle, Canes Monta. "The phone keeps ringing with people calling to express sympathy. They are bringing us food and flowers and even have cooked for us when we have been unable to do it ourselves. We didn't expect it but it feels wonderful. It gives me the courage to go on without my favorite boy."

"I never met them before, but we will probably stay friends forever now," added Eufemio Rodriguez. "We will have something in common forever."

Staff Writers Jason B. Grosky and Tim Wacker contributed to this report.