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Prep Athlete Is 3rd to Die in Two Weeks

May 05, 1997|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the third deadly accident on a Los Angeles-area high school playing field in two weeks, a star teenage baseball player had his throat crushed by the bill of another boy's batting helmet when the two collided during a weekend game.

Kriston Palomo, a 16-year-old sophomore at St. Bernard's Roman Catholic High School in Playa del Rey, underwent organ removal surgery late Sunday night, a day after he fielded his last baseball. His parents, saying it was what their son would have wanted, had asked that he be sustained after his brain ceased to function so that his organs could be donated.

"I just want people to know that he was a loving kid," said Kriston's father, Fernando Palomo, 43. "He loved life, he loved people and he loved baseball."

With a batting average of .475 and a reputation for a winning attitude and steely concentration under pressure, Kriston already was being noticed on the field by professional and college scouts, his coaches said.

The freak incident, during a Saturday afternoon game against Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance, follows the sports-related deaths of two other teenage athletes.

Heath Taylor, 17, died April 29 of severe head injuries incurred when he bounced off a pole vault mat at Hart High School in Newhall. A week earlier, Craig Kelford III, a Palos Verdes Peninsula High School sophomore, died after a flying discus struck him in the head at a North Torrance High track meet.

On Saturday, as Kriston's mother and father watched from their usual spots in the grandstands, Kriston moved in to catch a pop fly between home and first base, looking skyward, reaching up with both hands and calling, "I got it! I got it!"

But with his eyes on the ball, he had no chance of seeing the batter, head down, barreling toward him.

After the two collided, witnesses said Kriston got up and turned around instinctively to see if the play was completed. As his parents raced onto the field, Kriston fell to his knees, gasping his last words: "I can't breathe."

The other boy in the accident, whose name was not released, was not injured.

Paramedics reported that the Westchester teen's heart had stopped by the time they got to the field, said Frederick Carr, the emergency room physician who treated Kriston at Little Company of Mary Hospital.

In spite of the paramedics' report, the emergency room team worked for about an hour to revive him. Kriston's mother, Diana, looked on while the team worked, talking to her son calmly throughout the procedure as the doctors and nurses began to weep, Carr said.

Although they were able to restore a heartbeat, Carr said, a neurologist confirmed Sunday that the boy's brain had been deprived of oxygen too long and was dead. It was at that point that the Palomos decided to keep their son on life support in order to harvest his organs.

"You want your son to live on somewhere in somebody else," Fernando Palomo said. "I know he would have wanted to give his organs to help somebody else live. He was very giving."

Kriston made his family and friends proud, they recalled, off the field as well: for kissing his father hello and goodbye every day, for promising his 13-year-old sister he would always take care of her, for always being the first to console a friend, for treating everybody he encountered with respect.

Kriston, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound sophomore, started on the varsity team last year as a freshman--one of only three freshmen varsity players at the school in the past 14 years.

This year, he had hit nine home runs. He batted left, threw right and played both first and third bases.

In addition to his school team, Kriston played on a club team, the West Coast Yankees, where he was a starting catcher.

Scouts from Stanford University and UCLA recently had come to watch Kriston, said Harry Grumet, the Yankees coach who led his team to the state championship this year. There were also scouts from the Blue Jays and the Orioles as well as from the local professional teams.

Grumet said he was looking forward to taking Kriston, his best player, to play in the national title game this August in North Carolina.

As an example of Kriston's character, Grumet recalled a particularly tense game in January, when the Yankees were in the last inning, down by one, with two outs.

Another boy made his way to the plate, knowing the full expectations of the team were on him and struck out.

As the other team cheered and the crestfallen player made his way sadly to the dugout, Kriston raced over to his teammate and threw a reassuring arm around him.

"He always did everything right," Grumet said.

At a memorial service in the hospital chapel on Sunday, hundreds paid their final respects, the coach said.

Kriston's liver, kidneys, corneas and heart valves were removed for transplant Sunday night, said Melissa Dunbar, of the Southern California Organ Procurement Center.

Fernando Palomo continued to talk to his son as he waited for Kriston's organs to be passed on to the waiting recipients, acknowledging that his boy could no longer hear him.

Over and over, he told Kriston that he loved him, Fernando Palomo said. He told Kriston how much his sister and mother loved him and that they all missed him already.

"He was my best friend, and I was his best friend," his father said. "I told him we will always have him in our hearts."

St. Bernard's planned a memorial service today at 9:15 a.m. The baseball team will meet afterward to discuss whether it will continue the season.

Times staff writers Eric Shepard and Jeff Leeds contributed to this story.

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