ALTON, Tex. — It was a tragedy almost beyond endurance: Twenty-one children drowning when their school bus was knocked into the murky waters of a flooded gravel pit.
The four years that have passed may have partially healed some of the wounds, but the money--the millions of settlement dollars paid to the parents of these children--has opened new ones.
It doesn't sit well with some of the 3,000 residents of this mostly poor community that a number of the victims' families have used settlement money to move into bigger houses and buy expensive cars.
Enough, says the Rev. Joseph Lapauw, who is building a new church with help from some of the families. The Roman Catholic priest says it's long past time for residents and outsiders alike to stop talking about greed and stop judging the victims for how the money is spent.
"Who is greedy? I think it is the lawyers who pushed them," Lapauw said. "The people want to live in peace and go on with their lives."
The families feel hurt by local gossip--and occasional news stories--implying that they're living fast and loose with their new fortunes, the priest said.
For each child killed, the families received an estimated $4.5 million from Valley Coca-Cola Bottling Co., which owned the truck that ran a stop sign and knocked the school bus into the pit on Sept. 21, 1989.
They received nearly $1 million more for each death from the bus manufacturer to settle lawsuits alleging the bus had insufficient escape hatches.
It's true that some of the families built sprawling ranch houses unlike any ever seen in Alton, and that some of their children cruise the rural roads in fancy hot rods and pickups.
Last year, two students who had escaped the bus wreck died in a Camaro that smashed into a tree.
But Lapauw said the positive things that happened get less attention, such as the poor families who moved into decent, but modest, homes.
Some invested in small businesses and in their children's education, he said, and committed acts of generosity that have received little notice.
"I'd say all of the families have relatives in Mexico, so they built houses for them in Mexico," Lapauw said. "You can't say the people have not shared. A number of those families have been generous."
Raul Ortega, whose 15-year-old son, Jose, died in the bus, said that he hasn't changed but that others began looking at him differently after he received the money.
"When you don't have anything, nobody wants you. Now, everybody is your friend. Now, everybody wants to take advantage of you. Everybody wants you to give them money," said Ortega, 62, an usher and one of the donors at the church.
"They want you to lend them some money," he said, "and if you don't lend them, they start talking."
Soon, many of the families distanced themselves from the rest of Alton, living in seclusion in their new homes, Ortega said.
"You can't give to everybody," he said.
The former migrant farm worker said he had never heard of a lawsuit before lawyers approached him immediately after the tragedy.
"We can't do anything to bring our boy back. We decided to buy a good place to live, and that's it," he said. "We still have him in our thoughts. This is something that you don't forget easily."
And the reminders won't end soon.
Though the biggest cases have been settled, it almost seems as if the lawsuits--about 350 were filed--will go on indefinitely.
"Hopefully, they will finish with them by the year 2000," Hidalgo County Dist. Atty. Rene Guerra said.
Valley Coca-Cola Bottling Co. paid out a total of $133 million, and Blue Bird Body Co., the bus manufacturer accused of design flaws, settled for $23 million. Fees for plaintiff attorneys in those cases, split among several firms, have been estimated at $50 million.
The case of one rescuer shows how complicated the legal battles can become.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent John R. Swyers, called to help save children from the flooded bus, filed suit in 1991, alleging that he suffered leg injuries and permanent mental and emotional distress. He is seeking $3.4 million from Valley Coca-Cola.
In April, Coca-Cola attached to the case its own lawsuit contending that Blue Bird's bus design and the dangerous intersection in Alton contributed to the deaths. Coca-Cola argues that if the soft-drink company is found liable for damages, then Blue Bird and the City of Alton should pay a share.
In turn, Alton sued the Texas Department of Transportation, alleging that the state agency had failed to put up guard rails to prevent vehicles from falling into the pit.
Others who have sued in connection with the accident include nearly two dozen rescuers, the bus driver, the truck driver--who was acquitted this year of 21 counts of criminally negligent homicide--long-lost relatives of the victims, the Coca-Cola truck passenger, and some Coca-Cola employees who weren't even at the scene.
In some cases, attorneys even sued attorneys over the right to sue.
It is all simple for Raul Ortega: No millions could ever replace his son.
"It benefited us, but at a cost," he said of the money. "I would prefer that he be with us. We wouldn't have much, but we'd be more or less . . . "
With that, his voice trailed off.