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THE WORLD | EARTHQUAKE IN MEXICO

Quake Claims a Victim Who Feared Dying Alone

Juan Calvario, 73, is killed when his home in Coquimatlan collapses. The church where he was caretaker suffers heavy damage.

January 23, 2003|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

COQUIMATLAN, Mexico — They held a candlelight wake Wednesday for Juan Calvario, a weathered campesino who had told friends that he feared being alone at the end. His bleached white coffin lay in a sheltered portico just a few feet from the battered remains of the once-elegant Church of San Pedro where he had found comfort seven days a week.

"He told me he was destined to die alone with his dogs," said a distraught Maria Elena Olivares, who flew down Tuesday night from Los Angeles in the hope that the man who raised her had survived the 45 seconds of fury that shook this swath of western Mexico at 8:07 p.m. "And that's exactly what happened: He died alone at the end."

A rumor circulated that the 73-year-old Calvario had been killed by falling chunks of the huge bell towers of his beloved church, one of which crashed to the ground as if smacked by the hand of a malevolent giant.

In fact, he had died in his home, crushed as the four walls of the adobe building closed in on him. The official cause of death was asphyxia.

Calvario was the only known fatality of the earthquake in this hardscrabble town of about 15,000 just southwest of Colima, the capital of the state with the same name. But his lonely death, coupled with the devastation of his house of worship, seemed to epitomize a feeling of senseless loss that left residents in stunned disbelief, even as they tried to clean out the debris and get on with their lives.

"We were sitting at the table, eating dinner like any other evening, when everything started moving and shaking," resident Esteban Romero recalled as he shoveled the shards of roof tiles, mud bricks and other remains from his family's one-room dwelling into a waiting cart. "I grabbed my daughter and ran for the door. Something hit me on the shoulder and almost knocked me out."

The quake damaged 500 homes and other structures here, including the church, two schools and City Hall. About 150 buildings, including the church, might have to be demolished, officials said.

About 50 people were hurt, many with broken bones. Rescuers and family helped pull several survivors from the rubble.

Romero and his family emerged with minor scrapes. But the family is wounded in other ways. His wife, Maria Hernandez, says she feels she is losing control, her nerves shot. And Sonia, 9, seemed almost in a trance as she gathered wreckage from her tattered bed and the dirt floor of their shattered house and tossed them into the cart, robotic in her motions.

"My father grabbed me by the neck and pulled me out," the girl recalled in a monotone, responding only when prodded by her parents. Grime sullied her fine features, and her voice was hoarse from a day of breathing and ingesting dust particles amid the ruins.

Just then, Modesta Ramos trudged by, brandishing a broom that seemed to dominate her 82-year-old frame. The grandmother of 50-plus explained how she and her octogenarian husband managed to escape their home. "I've lived through a lot of earthquakes," said Ramos, who has lived all her life in a region whose peacefulness is periodically jarred by temblors and spewing volcanoes. "But this was the worst. Worse than the one in 1941," she added, recalling a legendary event here.

She paused before she walked away, back to the cleanup job. "This was a terrible thing that God sent us," she said. "A terrible thing."

The news about Juan Calvario seemed to cut especially deeply. Many recalled him from the church, where he had served in recent years as a sacristan, or caretaker, sounding the bells eight times on Sundays and two or three times on other days.

Earlier Tuesday, Olivares had spoken to him by telephone from her home in Highland Park. He sounded fine, she said, and she promised to call him again that evening.

"He raised me as his daughter from the time I was 3 months old," explained the grief-stricken Olivares, who said she sent money every two weeks to help him. "He was not my real father, but he was the only father I ever had. My papa."

She said he had expressed interest in coming to Los Angeles and living with her. But she told him that the trip would be too hard, especially now with immigration authorities clamping down on illegal border crossings. So she helped him instead.

She bought a telephone for him, but when she called Tuesday evening, there was no answer. Her sister told her about the earthquake in Colima, and she feared the worst.

"I kept calling, and I know in my heart he heard the phone ringing, and knew it was me, but could not get up," Olivares said. "I know he heard that phone."

She hurriedly boarded a flight from Los Angeles to Guadalajara on Tuesday night, but when she arrived here Wednesday, she was told that he was gone.

Friends and family came to pay respects as Calvario's coffin sat alongside the church, its south bell tower gone and its north one perched precariously.

Crowds gathered across the street in the central plaza, or zocalo, to await a visit by President Vicente Fox.

The parish priest said he feared that the 75-year-old colonial-style church would have to be razed.

Its bells never tolled for the passing of Juan Calvario.

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