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Relatives Bury Loved Ones and Ask, 'Why, Why, Why?'

Funeral homes and churches are jammed as mourners say farewell to the victims of terrorism.

March 14, 2004|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MADRID — Spain buried its dead Saturday: The telephone operator married to her childhood sweetheart. The union activist and his son. The army officer and occasional U.N. peacekeeper. The Peruvian janitor.

At one of Madrid's largest funeral parlors, every room was in use. In the suburb of Alcala de Henares, all 40 of its slain residents were eulogized in a mass funeral service.

The mourning ritual played itself out across the country, made all the more tragic by unanswered questions, festering suspicions and the pain of vulnerability and impotence.

The death toll in Thursday's train bombings rose to 200 when Francisco Moreno, a 56-year-old accountant and the sole support of his 82-year-old mother, succumbed to his wounds.

Still unable to absorb the news, Moreno's relatives staggered into a chapel at one of Alcala's two cemeteries for a brief service. One teenager, his body convulsed by sobs, collapsed on the lush green grounds. Paramedics rushed to his side.

In Madrid, hundreds of grieving families crowded into the Tanatorio Sur, or South Funeral Parlor, a two-story complex with 60 rooms for paying respects to the dead. A procession of hearses arrived and departed throughout the day. In the lobby, an overhead video monitor with an unsettling resemblance to those seen in airport terminals displayed the names of the dead along with the numbers of their assigned viewing rooms.

The relatives and friends of Luis Rodriguez gathered inside Room 10 for his wake, with many spilling outside into the corridor. The 40-year-old government clerk was riding in the passenger car in which one of the bombs exploded as it pulled into the Santa Eugenia station.

"Our only consolation is that at least he never knew what hit him," Rodriguez's brother-in-law Jose Luis Rasero said. "It's not just us. Two hundred families have been destroyed."

Juan Antonio Sanchez Quispe, a 43-year-old janitor, was one of five Peruvians being mourned at the complex.

"His life was the life of all immigrants here," said a friend, Ismael Bernabe, also Peruvian. "A hard worker. A father. He went to work every morning on that train." Sanchez had a wife and two teenage sons. He left the gritty Peruvian port city of Callao nine years ago in search of a better life in Spain.

"You know, we basically ran from Sendero Luminoso and all of that," Bernabe said, referring to the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas who terrorized Peru in the 1980s and '90s, "and now we get this. It's hard to understand. What can you do? This was a massacre, a massacre."

A third of the dead were immigrants from 11 countries, including a Pole and his 7-month-old daughter.

In Alcala, 25 priests led the mass funeral for the town's fallen in a cavernous gymnasium filled with mourners, standing room only. The scent of funeral incense was overpowering. Two coffins of brightly polished wood sat at the head of the auditorium, symbolizing the 40 Alcala residents who died on their way to work.

"All Alcala is with you," Msgr. Jesus Catala, the bishop of Alcala, told grieving families. "All Spain is with you."

The widow of Felix Gonzalez, a 50-year-old lieutenant in the Spanish army, sat in the front row, her face gaunt, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses. The Gonzalezes' two boys, ages 10 and 11, sat at their mother's side, squirming and daubing their eyes with tissues.

Gonzalez lay in one coffin. In the next was Pilar Cabrejas, 37, who worked for the telephone company.

She and her husband, Jesus Munoz, had known each other most of their lives. They had no children but lived for each other, recalled an aunt. "He has been left completely empty," the aunt, Nieves Diaz, said between her tears. "I'm asking God to help me forgive. I took communion and everything, but I cannot forgive. I cannot."

Alcala, 20 minutes east of Madrid and the birthplace of Cervantes, is essentially a bedroom community, with many of its residents working in the capital.

"The people here still can't quite believe this happened," said Azucena Martinez, a volunteer social worker who helped escort families and mourners into the auditorium. "It's as though it killed every one of us."

Jose Luis Vilela and Vicenta Fernandez buried their 23-year-old son, David Vilela, a librarian at the Biblioteca Nacional. He routinely took the train to work, and Thursday he had gone early for a job interview at a department store. He liked his work at the library, but he needed a second job to make extra money, Fernandez said.

As soon as she heard about the bomb, she called the library. David had not arrived. She and her husband called all the hospitals. Finally, a relative took a photo of David to the convention center where the bodies were being collected.

"It is senseless, senseless," she said.

In Alcala's Old Cemetery, Spanish military officers in crisp uniforms stood at attention along the muddy paths leading to the grave where Federico Sierra Seron was laid to rest.

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