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The Washington Post

'We Were Going To Be Reunited'

Sailor on Flight 587 Had Just Finished Overseas Mission

By Sylvia Moreno

November 14, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The Washington Post . All Rights Reserved.

SAN LUIS, Dominican Republic, Nov. 13 -- It was in the comfort of her childhood home here, among young green sugar stalks, that Amparo Gomez Betances came to wait out her husband's most dangerous assignment, a six-month tour on the USS Enterprise.

His duty done, and the Enterprise back in port in Norfolk, Petty Officer Ruben Rodriguez was on his way here to reunite with his wife and their three sons, one of them a 7-month-old infant, whom his father had not seen since the baby was 11 days old. Omar was born April 12; Rodriguez left Virginia on April 23.

"We prayed for him. We offered up prayers for him and we were so happy that he was finally coming," said Gomez's mother, Ramona Betances Varga, as she sat in her small living room in this hamlet east of the capital, and broke down in tears. "And look what happened."

In dozens of homes around this island nation, families grieved the loss of their loved ones -- about 175 of the 251 passengers aboard American Airlines Flight 587, which was bound for Santo Domingo Monday morning when it crashed right after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Many of the half-million or so Dominicans in New York City live their lives in two worlds, taxiing between their homes here and their homes back there.

Rodriguez was aboard the Airbus 300. Just hours before, he had spoken to his wife, given her the final arrangements for his trip and talked about the two-week vacation he would enjoy in his native country following his overseas mission.

"He was happy because he was coming and we were going to be reunited," Gomez said slowly, the shock of the news of his death still heavy in her voice and the sag of her shoulders. "After that, I know nothing more."

The south-central city of Bani lost an estimated 40 of its sons and daughters; Haina, just west of the capital city, 18. An entire family, reportedly coming home to resettle in their birthplace, San Cristobal, also west of Santo Domingo, was wiped out.

There were stories of children orphaned in one terrible instant, and planned surprises that turned tragic. Multiple members of families and close friends from the same town perished together, prompting one radio news station to comment that the Dominican habit of traveling in groups of friends or family members led to an "even larger tragedy" for some communities.

Julia Dominguez of the Bronx, who always came home for Christmas, decided to arrive early this year and surprise her elderly mother. She would stay through the end of the year, she told her brother, Nicholas Lopez, of Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, by telephone a few days ago.

"She said she would see Mami here and then come to see me in Puerto Rico," Lopez said upon arriving at the airport outside the capital. Instead, he learned of the crash while attending the funeral of his father-in-law in Puerto Rico.

"My heart erupted. I couldn't even breathe," Lopez said shortly before he was shepherded to a hotel by the American Airlines Care Team, a group of employees who volunteer to help with logistics for victims' families following plane crashes.

"I just wanted to get here before my mother found out. She didn't even know my sister was coming."

The family of 84-year-old Ana Perez Garcia, who died Sunday night in her home in Haina, was awaiting Perez's daughter, Rosa Perez Ruiz, and granddaughter, Johanny Suazo Perez, to arrive from Brooklyn for the funeral Monday afternoon. The mother and daughter were aboard the ill-fated plane. Upon hearing the news, the family moved up Ana Perez's burial by several hours just so they could begin the preparations for two more family funerals.

"It was like an earthquake in here when we found out," said Bienvenido "Mon" David, the cousin of Rosa Perez. "There was crying and screaming and people running out in the street. The women fell to the floor and there weren't enough men to support them. The men were weak too. One death and then two more. That's hard; hard, hard, very hard. I never wish that upon anyone -- ever."

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