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Family touched by Massachusetts tornado tragedy uses faith to carry on

WEST SPRINGFIELD - In the moments before the house collapsed, Angelica Guerrero ran to the bedroom where her daughter Ibone was taking a nap after school. She scooped the teenager up, brought her to the bathtub and covered Ibone with her own body.

“My plan was to throw my body on top of them. I couldn’t make it,’’ said Juan Guerrero, recalling the day exactly one year ago when a tornado killed his wife and seriously injured both his younger daughter and him.

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Yet, Guerrero, a deeply spiritual Aztec who grew up in Mexico, said he felt a sense of calm in the aftermath of the tragedy. Days later, as he lay in his hospital bed recovering, he said he was visited by his longtime partner’s spirit, who soothed him with reassuring words.

“Don’t cry, my love. You need to rest. But I’m going to ask you something, only one thing,’’ Juan Guerrero recalled his wife saying. “Take care of our daughters.’’

Today, Ibone, 16, is studying karate again, Juan is healing and hoping to return to work. But, until now, Juan has said little publicly about Angelica, who has been held up as a hero in the tornado that killed two others and left a 39-mile-long trail of devastation.

More than 650 people applauded the family in March when Angelica Guerrero received a Hometown Hero Award from the American Red Cross, one of three posthumous awards she has received for her heroism. She also received a September 11th award presented by Governor Deval Patrick and an award from the Humane Society of Massachusetts.

Juan Guerrero said he is grateful for the efforts to keep his wife’s memory alive, and he keeps her awards in a place of honor on a table along with her burial certificate, family pictures, and a vase of roses.

The awards “recognize the person that passed away and at the same time they are trying to tell you that you are not alone,’’ he said.

But Guerrero continues to agonize over his wife’s death as well as the serious back injuries he suffered when chimney bricks and other debris in the collapsing house fell on him. He still walks with a cane.

“I knew in my heart, Angie died five minutes after the house collapsed,’’ Guerrero said in a low, sad voice as he slumped on his sofa. He said he felt her passing in his heart.

Angelica Guerrero usually worked the day shift, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., as the manager at Wendy’s in the Holyoke Mall. But on June 1, 2011, she came home at noon. The power began flickering on and off as the couple sat in the living room watching TV, but they weren’t alarmed because that happened frequently.

“Let’s see if it’s raining, my love,’’ Juan Guerrero recalled her saying.

That’s when they saw the tornado - and immediately thought of their children. Daughter Fabiola, now 19, was not at home. But Ibone had come home from school and taken a nap. Angelica ran for the bedroom where she slept.

Within minutes, 160-mile-an-hour winds collapsed the roof of the apartment building, bringing heavy debris crashing down on Angelica and Ibone as they huddled inside the bathtub

“Ibone was awake when they took her to the hospital,’’ Juan Guerrero said, “but I knew Angie was dead.’’

Ibone was in the hospital for three days. Chunks of flesh had been ripped from her legs and lacerations crisscrossed her knees. The doctor told her she would never walk again.

Two days later, another doctor asked Ibone if she could move her toes. When Ibone said she could, the doctor had good news for Juan.

“She’s going to be walking in no time,’’ he said. Guerrero began to cry.

Like her father, Ibone has been publicly quiet about her mother’s death, but she has recovered, competing in karate tournaments as a blue belt - and winning. She hopes to one day earn the black belt.

Juan Guerrero has leaned on his spiritual upbringing to help him get through. The day before the city came to remove the ruins of the Guerreros’ house last July, he visited the property. Though the thought of going back to where his wife had died rattled him, he knew he had to go.

“I did a ritual to take my wife’s spirit from the spot . . . an Aztec Indian ritual and that’s why she’s with me all the time,’’ said Guerrero, adding that he has felt Angelica’s presence six times.

Guerrero is still recovering from storm injuries - including a cracked sacrum and two bulging discs in his back - which compounded a back injury he had suffered in a 2005 construction accident. He worked at Wendy’s with his wife until surgery in 2006 and he has been unemployed since then, much to his frustration.

However, Guerrero said his doctor will determine in July whether he can work and, if he can, he wants to accept an offer from the Holyoke Wendy’s to work as a manager.

And that’s not the only good news: Habitat for Humanity recently selected the Guerreros as one of four families to receive a new home, free of charge. Construction of a new house on Leitch Street is scheduled to begin Friday.

But Guerrero is already thinking about the day he is reunited with his wife, his companion for 20 years.

“I know one day I’m going to see her again and if she accepts me again, I will marry her again,’’ he said.

Amy Chaunt can be reached at achaunt12@gmail.com. Anna Mailer can be reached at ameiler16@gmail.com.
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