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After bus crash Catholic Charities offers counseling, necessities as farmworkers recover from injuries

ORLANDO  |  The eating area of the Days Inn in Gainesville was filled with men, beleaguered by the past days’ events and still stunned by the bus accident that took the lives of eight of their own, just four days earlier.

These were some of the 53 Mexican migrant workers on the bus headed to harvest watermelons at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon, May 14, 2024. In a horrible accident, eight men died and dozens were injured when their bus was side-swiped by a pick-up truck. That driver faces eight counts of DUI-manslaughter.

Some survivors bore scars and stitches on their faces, others bruises, a broken arm in a sling, a bandaged hand, and a multitude of other aches and pains. Their drawn faces and blank stares revealed their weariness and shock.

The victims are unable to work and do not get paid for days off the job. As the survivors huddled together in the small gathering space, they listened to members of Catholic Charities of Central Florida’s Relief Team who came to accompany them in their sorrow. Catholic Charities offered trauma counseling and bags of clothing, hygiene products, food and more.

Deacon Wilmar Rojas, director of operations for Catholic Charities, promised there was no time frame limiting their chance to speak to staff about their experience, to grieve, to share their needs. A mental health counselor and other staff were there to listen, pray, and simply be with them hoping to lighten the load of the survivors.

One of the men at the Days Inn was Enrique. His eyes were red, and his face was gaunt. He talked about his roommate, Carlos, who is still in the hospital with a severe brain injury.

“He left his phone so when his family calls, I answer it,” Enrique said. “I try to tell them what I know and tell them what a good man and friend he is.”

Enrique said he hoped his words comforted them. He said he misses his friend, a man in his late 20s who is so much like his own eldest son.

Enrique recalled trying to walk back onto the bus after his face was stitched up by a medic. He wanted to retrieve his backpack which held his passport, cash and his telephone.

“I started to walk in, but when I saw the blood, the bodies of those who died, I couldn’t,” he said. “It was very hard. I know that I didn’t get hurt as badly, but it’s still hard.”

He said his faith in God is helping him get through this ordeal. But then he suddenly changed the subject and spoke of the beauty of the watermelon harvest. He holds pride in the work and values how others can trust him to do a good job.

Among the victims sat a man named Martin. He was not on the bus but greatly affected by the accident. When he arrived to Gainesville, he discovered he lost his nephew and a neighbor who regularly joined him in the annual watermelon harvest. His nephew had come for the first time and had only been working one week.

“He was excited for the opportunity to provide for his family back home, his wife and 11-month-old child,” Martin recalled.

That dream is not uncommon. Some men came to the United States dreaming of eventually having a little house. One of the eight deceased men was just married, and awaiting the Baptism of his child. Another one of the men who was lost hoped to save enough money to return home and marry his girlfriend. He died before learning she was pregnant.

“It’s so hard to reconcile this reality,” Martin said. “My nephew’s family still doesn’t believe it. They think there’s still a chance he is alive.”

He said his sister cannot accept that her son is gone.  

“It’s hard to be so far away and unable to offer consolation,” he said. But he finds comfort in his farmworker family. Their work and the distance from their homeland binds them. “They are like a family, but it is still hard to come to terms with what has happened,” Martin said.

Now the support of Martin’s nephew’s family falls to him, but he said he is happy to do it. Martin has worked the watermelon harvest in central Florida for at least five years. He and a crew of almost 150 people work Monday through Sunday, sometimes with one day off. The day starts at sunrise and ends at sunset. After a few weeks, they will move up the stream — north to Georgia, then Kentucky.

He said the workers have agreed to remain at the designated housing, in this case the Days Inn, which is 45 minutes away from Cannon Farm. There are four to a room with bunk beds. Although many are Catholic and would welcome participating at Mass, Martin said their agreement with the farm is to stay put. “It’s complicated,” he said. Besides, they have no transportation of their own and arrive too late for any Mass.

Catholic Charities staff joined Farmworker Association of Florida board president, Moises Cruz, at the Days Inn. Cruz and his staff are caring for the victims and guiding them through the complicated workers’ compensation system. Cruz thanked Catholic Charities for their “presence and collaboration in providing for this vulnerable community.”

A memorial erected for the eight farmworkers victims killed May 14, 2024, when their bus carrying 53 migrant workers was side swiped while traveling to a watermelon harvesting site at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon. The memorial stands at the crash site on Highway 40 in Dunnellon. A Dallas artist, moved by the tragedy, drove to Dunnellon and created the memorial with the ongoing assistance of locals donating time, paint, wood and flowers. A vigil was held for the victims.

On May 21, the Mexican Consulate invited Catholic Charities to take part in a “Blessing of the Bodies.” Deacon Rojas offered prayers, alongside Father Gianni Agostinelli, administrator of San Pedro Jesus Maldonado Catholic Mission in Leesburg, who blessed the bodies of seven farmworkers.

Father Agostinelli told those gathered, “This is one step in life. Death is simply a door to the other side. We are here to remember the loved ones we’ve lost. It is the families that stay behind.”

He reminded those gathered, “The hope of the Lord is eternal. No one can separate themselves from the love of God. Let us carry the yoke of sorrow with hope. Let us remain in communion with the departed through prayer.”

The family of Manuel Perez Rios arrived near the end of the ceremony. Upon seeing the hearse with her husband’s name on it, Mrs. Perez broke down. A consulate aid came to her assistance and comforted her.

Meanwhile, Deacon Rojas is working to see if he can coordinate spiritual care for the victims, a few less now that some have returned home. He hopes a local church can step in and offer a service late in the evening. Father Agostinelli will also celebrate Mass at the Days Inn for the victims.

Deacon Rojas said, “serving these victims was a gift to them and for Catholic Charities staff.” He said, “After accompanying them late into the evening, we did not leave hungry, but satisfied the Holy Spirit had preceded our arrival and provided a natural flow of conversation that was healing for them and for us. We knew that God was in our midst.”

Catholic Charities of Central Florida staff prepare bags of food and necessities for the 45 farmworkers who survived a bus accident Tuesday, May 14. Eight of their co-workers died when Bryan Maclean Howard, 41, who faces eight counts of DUI-manslaughter, side swiped the bus carrying 53 farmworkers to their watermelon harvesting site at Cannon Farms in Dunnellon. Victims unable to work do not get paid for days off the job. Catholic Charities stepped in to offer trauma counseling and bags of clothing, hygiene products, and food and other more as many recover from their injuries. GLENDA MEEKINS | FC

Deacon Rojas is coordinating efforts to further meet the needs of the victims who no longer have income to cover food and toiletries.

Catholic Charities president, Deacon Gary Tester, said the help the organization is providing is a Corporal Work of Mercy. “The Corporal Works of Mercy calls for us to welcome the stranger, care for the sick – to heed Jesus’ command to love our neighbor,” he said. “In the midst of this tragedy, we strive to truly be His hands and feet, to bring healing spiritually, physically, and emotionally to our brothers and sisters. We are humbled to serve with love.”

The Farmworker Association of Florida has established a GoFundMe for the farmworkers affected by the crash. To donate, click here.

By Glenda Meekins of the Florida Catholic Staff, May 24, 2024