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A Day After O.C. Drownings, Questions and Sorrow

Tragedies: For many students at Santa Ana's Valley High, 'this is their first experience with death.' Meanwhile, parents of Anaheim first-grader are consoled by school officials.

May 20, 2000|LISA RICHARDSON and LOUISE ROUG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thursday was a day of death. Friday was a day of mourning.

Friends and relatives of two Orange County youths--one an Anaheim first-grader, the other a Santa Ana high school senior--struggled Friday with the weight of sudden grief, and the emptiness of sudden loss.

"They think they're immortal at this age," said Robert Nelson, principal of Santa Ana's Valley High School, where 17-year-old drowning victim Armando Briseno was a senior and key member of the varsity baseball team. "Now they're coming to grips with the fact that they're not. For many of our kids who have never lost a friend or a relative, this is their first experience with death and grief. And it's really hard."

It was difficult for older people as well. In Anaheim, relatives of Dominic Cervantes, 6, sequestered themselves in their condominium Friday after spending most of the day planning the burial of the boy, who drowned in the complex's swimming pool late Thursday afternoon.

'He Was Just a Good Kid'

One relative, who declined to identify herself, said a baby-sitter had been watching Dominic and his brother, Arley, 11, when the drowning occurred. The circumstances of the drowning, which Anaheim police were investigating, left parents Rosa and Jose Cervantes filled both with questions and grief, the relative said.

The parents could not be reached for comment.

At Palm Lane Elementary School, Dominic's teacher described him as a gifted student who recently qualified for placement in an accelerated class.

"Where do I start? He was just a good kid . . . very loving," teacher Judy Pettite-Jasmine said, fighting back tears. "He was a great reader, a great student."

She said Dominic, a popular student with a knack for entertaining classmates with stories, was doted on by his parents and his older brother.

"He liked everything first-graders do," she said, running through a list that included Pokemon cards and making books. "He would illustrate and write stories about dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and skateboarding. He would always visit the other students at their desks--anything to keep from sitting down."

Pettite-Jasmine and school Principal Randy Wiethorn both went to the Cervantes' home Friday to console Dominic's parents after they returned from the funeral home.

"I'm just devastated for [them]," Pettite-Jasmine said. "It's just so sad."

At Valley High School, seniors should have been focusing Friday on that night's prom at the Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda. Instead, they traded memories of a dead classmate who had planned to take his girlfriend to the night of revelry.

The grief ran deep, particularly among Armando's baseball teammates and coaches, who recalled him as a standout athlete with a ready laugh who never missed practice even when injured.

Baseball coach Leon Smith, who was too distraught to talk, eulogized Armando as "quick to smile and slow to criticize."

Armando's teammates were allowed to leave school early Friday to visit Armando's parents. But they returned later that afternoon.

"At this time, I try to be positive and strong for both the team and Armando's family," team captain Miguel Guerrero said. "But I tell them he's still with us. He'll never be gone."

Crisis counselors roamed Valley High on Friday, dropping in on Armando's classes to discuss with students and teachers how best to handle their grief. Armando's teammates were asked to write letters to his family, putting that grief into words.

Prom organizers considered postponing the event but decided to forge ahead and collect donations from attendees to help Armando's family defray funeral expenses.

Of the decision to continue with the biggest party of senior year, Nelson said: "I'm not sure Armando would have wanted them to" postpone it.

Times staff writer Scott Martelle contributed to this report.

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