"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LXXVI)
The enormous National Guard LSVR truck, an eight-wheeler weighing more than twenty tons, was partially engulfed by the raging stream, some of the water flooding into its back platform. But after Jeannie, Michael, and Ojeda were pulled into the vehicle, the truck roared to life and backed out of the current.
It stopped briefly to pick up Lucas, and then headed at full speed towards the hospital.
The man Michael had previously seen from the overturned minivan, had run more than a mile to find the National Guard vehicle, alerting it of what had happened. He had climbed into the truck, and had been one of the men who had helped carry Ojeda into safety.
In his forties, with dark, darting eyes, and a square jaw punctuated by a large, round dimple, the man introduced himself as Paco Mendez, a resident of the area.
When the eye of the hurricane had passed over them, and the wind died down, he had stepped out of his house to examine the damage Fay had caused to his neighborhood, he told Michael and Jeannie.
He had been doubly horrified by what he saw, staring in wonder at the overhead waning sky, where only a few scattered clouds and some bright stars dotted what seemed to be a circle of peaceful, dark blue firmament, while further away, a black, impenetrable curtain of clouds blotted the horizon.
A portion of his street was flooded, but he was wearing high rubber boots, so he had walked two blocks through the dark muck to the Avenida Central.
The four lane avenue had not escaped the hurricane’s wrath, he told them. Debris and fallen trees were scattered everywhere, and a Jeep had been overturned, apparently struck by a massive lamp that had broken away from a streetlight. The lamp had been sticking out of the front passenger window of the capsized vehicle.
Wires hung like jungle vines not just from the posts that had held them, but from the roof of homes, the tops of cars, and everywhere else. Some were entangled with broken branches and fallen trees, and many of them snaked over the ground like black, giant boa constrictors.
“You know what impressed me the most, though?” Mendez said to his listeners. “It wasn’t the damage to the stores, or the destruction of the trees, or the flooding. It was when I came out of the house, and looked at my outside walls. My house is painted white on the outside, but when I looked at it today, it had a greenish, yellowish color. It’s as if the wind smashed the leaves that it tore from the trees and plants into the walls, and splattered the chlorophyll inside them. It’s crazy! Never see anything like it.”
Michael and Jeannie had not replied, too tired to do so.
“And then, the grass in front of my house, and in the grassy median of Avenida Central, did you notice it?”
Michael had shaken his head.
“They’re a mush, a mixture of a millions bits and pieces of leaves, scraps of paper, even chips of paint, all mixed into the grass. It’s as if that hurricane was not satisfied with stripping the leaves from the trees, but she sat down to shred each of them apart, each piece of loose paper, piece by piece, and mingled it with the grass into some soggy, unrakeable mess. Look at my boots!” he said, pointing at the slushy goo composed of tiny bits of vegetation and other unidentifiable particles that covered his rubber boots. “This happened while I was walking through the median of Avenida Central.”
Mendez shook his head in despair and wonder.
“And then, it started again! When I got to the Avenida Central, I saw this truck slowly heading north. Then, further away, I saw that the canal traversing the avenue had flooded, and I headed that way, to see it better. When I got there, I saw your minivan trying to cross.”
He smirked, as he relived the moment when he had seen the Caravan trying to make it through the current.
“I knew you wouldn’t make it. The water was too strong and high. What were you thinking of?” he said, not expecting an answer.
“We had to try. My brother-in-law and his friend have to get to a hospital,” Michael muttered tiredly.
“Then I saw the van stop, and start floating, and then it fell on its side, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God! These poor people! They are not going to make it!’ But somehow, you all did. You managed to get on top of the side of the van. I started screaming at you, but the weather was starting to get worse, and I don’t think you heard or saw me.”
“I heard your voice, but I didn’t understand what you were saying. Did you hear me?”
Mendez shook his head.
“I decided to locate the National Guard truck I had seen a few moments before,” he explained. “I knew that I didn’t have that much time, so I ran away.”
“Yeah,” Michael said. “I wasn’t sure of what you were doing. I thought that either you were trying to seek refuge from the storm, or that you didn’t see us.”
“Let me tell you, it’s not easy, running with rubber boots. They don’t fit tightly, and they kept scraping the soles and the back of my feet. I think I have some first class blisters in my feet right now. They hurt like heck. Anyway, I was lucky enough that the truck had stopped about a mile away to examine some flooded cars. I hailed them, and they came. Just in the nick of time, too.”
Jeannie had nodded, smiling briefly. “We owe you our lives,” she said. “Thank you.”
“What’s important is that we get your husband and his friend to the hospital as quickly as we can,” he replied, beaming and looking bashfully at the floor. Michael suppressed a smile, it being evident that the man had been captivated by his sister-in-law.
The medic on board had tried to stabilize the two unconscious men, staring with quiet concern and curiosity at their stab and bullet wounds.
A large yellowish welt covered Jeannie’s left shoulder, where the floating drum had struck her, but apart from the soreness and the pain, she had suffered no significant injuries.
Michael rested on the floor of the truck, too exhausted to say much, leaning against one of the vehicle’s sides, casting periodic, anxious looks at where his brother-in-law lay.
The back of the LSVR was open, so that its occupants were forced to seek refuge from the torrential rain by huddling under a plastic blue tarp that—despite the partial cover offered by the vehicle’s side walls—threatened several time to fly away, blown off by the unrelenting wind.
The truck finally got to one of the outside gates of the Santa Trinidad Hospital, the second oldest hospital in San Juan, and the hospital where Lucas’ sister Michelle was still staying.
However, to reach the hospital from the gate, the National Guard vehicle still had to travel through a long driveway lined with large, ancient banyan trees.
The narrow entranceway was heavily obstructed by fallen tree branches, but the big truck easily drove over them.
Even so, the LSVR was forced to stop about two thirds of the way from the emergency ward, since the huge trunk of a fallen tree blocked the path.
Hurriedly, the personnel in the truck began to unfurl one of the hand-carried stretchers in the truck. But just as soon as they unfurled it, the wind tore it away.
“We’ll have to walk the rest of the way!” a sergeant bearing the name tag of “Bermudez”—a short, barrel-chested plug of a man with arms and legs as thick as a some of the fallen tree trunks—shouted, flinging open the truck’s back hatch. “The wind has really picked up, so we’ll carry each of the injured men between two of us, and two other men will escort the lady. We’re less than fifty or sixty yards away from the entrance to the emergency ward, and I radioed ahead, so that they’re aware and waiting for us.”
The sergeant turned to the other guardsmen in the truck, and pointed at Lucas.
“Alvarez, Guzmán, you carry him,” he said to two of the younger soldiers standing by him. “Jimenez, Ramirez, you take the other one. You..” he said to the good Samaritan who had alerted them about the Caravan, pausing momentarily because he could not remember his name.
“Mendez,” the good Samaritan prompted him.
“…Mendez. You’re going to spend the rest of the hurricane inside the hospital, because we can’t drive you to your home. Do you think you can escort the lady here, with her brother-in-law?”
Mendez nodded enthusiastically.
“Sure,” he said, “I’ll make sure they get safely to the hospital.”
“We have to go. I’ll follow you guys with Figueroa,” he added, tapping the wall behind the driver’s cab. “To help anyone who needs help. You hear that, Figueroa?” he shouted at the driver.
Figueroa tapped the cab’s back wall from the other side, confirming his sergeant’s instructions.
The guardsmen prepared quickly, holding on to the two unconscious men by their arms, while the sergeant, joined by the driver Figueroa, helped to lower them, and then Jeannie and Michael, from the back of the truck.
“Hold on!” Michael shouted to Jeannie, as the torrential rain, whipped by gusts averaging one hundred and fifty miles per hour and falling almost horizontally, buffeted them with numbing violence.
Slowly, they headed towards the hospital, the wind shrieking and howling around them with terrifying intensity, frightening even those with the stoutest hearts.
Twice, the men carrying Ojeda tumbled. The first time,Jimenez, the tallest of the two guardsmen but also the thinnest, tripped and fell on his knees, but his companion, Ramirez, managed to hold on to Ojeda. The second time, however, a man-sized branch blew past the trio, nearly hitting them and causing a surprised Jimenez to fall to the ground and drag the other two with him.
Sergeant Bermudez was with them in the blink of an eye, followed closely by Figueroa, and between them, they helped to raise the fallen men.
Finally exiting the wooded area, the small party of refugees walked into the open traffic circle in front of the hospital’s entrance.
Here, however, unhindered by the thick trunks of the trees fringing the road, the wind hit the struggling group with renewed ferocity.
Each step required more and more effort, sometimes blowing the walkers sideways or backwards, and forcing them to bend against the nearly solid wall of rain.
Suddenly, a deafening, cracking noise, so loud that for a moment it overpowered the frantic wails of the storm, made everyone look backwards.
A tall oak tree growing next to where the LSVR had stopped, splintered and cracked, its tall, heavy trunk crashing directly on top of the National Guard vehicle. The military truck bounced violently on its eight wheels, and buckled near the center, raising off the ground a pair of its front wheels.
“Sweet Jesus!” Michael muttered to himself, trying to concentrate on their progress to the hospital and not to think what would have happened had they been inside the truck.
The ten-person party continued to stumble forward, using each other as support, but it soon became apparent that they were rapidly losing their strength. Unexpectedly, the twin doors of the emergency ward’s entrance slid open, and about a dozen persons dressed in hospital scrubs began to pour out, grabbing each other by their arms, forming a human chain.
They began to shout, urging the exhausted group to make a final effort and reach them.
Heartened by their encouraging cries, the small party of guardsmen and civilians dug deep into their faltering strength, and reached the comforting arms of their rescuers.
Even so, it took nearly another ten minutes to bring everyone inside of the hospital.
Lucas and Ojeda were immediately placed on stretchers, and followed by several nurses and doctors, wheeled through a half-dark, half-illuminated-by-emergency-spotlights corridor, to the operating rooms.
Jeannie tried to follow them, but collapsed from bone-deep tiredness, sitting on the floor and leaning against a wall.
Out of sheer will, Michael continued walking with the medical personnel.
A nurse carrying a blanket stopped and knelt next to Jeannie, placing a blanket around her shoulders.
“You poor dear!” she said with genuine concern. “You must be exhausted! Stay here, I’m going to get you a wheelchair.”
The nurse stood up and walked into the restricted area of the emergency ward.
For the first time since she had left her house, Jeannie allowed herself to lower the mental defenses that had kept in check her emotions.
A sob escaped her, followed by another, until she was crying bitterly. Her house had been turned into a slaughterhouse, her car lost in the storm, her children staying away from her during one the most terrible hurricanes to ever hit the island.
Worst of all, she did not know if Lucas would survive.
She wept disconsolately, covering her face, barely able to breathe, much less think.
It was too much.
She had never felt so helpless in her life.
It was too much.
“Hi there,” a familiar voice said to her in a gentle tone. “I just saw Michael, and he told me in very general terms what you’ve been through. You’re such a brave woman!”
Jeannie looked up, and saw Archie, crouching and smiling at her.
“Somebody recognized Lucas,” he explained. “They got word to us upstairs immediately. I think you’re going to need a Kleenex,” he began to say to her, but she threw her arms around his neck.
“Oh Archie!” she said between breathless, wet, heavy sobs. “Lucas…I…He’s…”
“I know,” Jeannie’s redheaded brother-in-law said. “He’s going into the operating room now. So is Ojeda. They’ll be okay,” he assured her, not feeling very confident himself. “You know the saying: ‘Hierba mala nunca muere’ (‘Wild weeds never die’),” he added, trying to lighten the mood.
He handed her three folded tissues.
Jeannie separated one of them, and noisily blew her nose.
At that moment, the nurse who had previously spoken to her walked out of the restricted area pushing a wheelchair. She was blond, and pretty, and was smiling happily.
She looked briefly at Archie, and then addressed Jeannie.
“Your transportation is here!” she said. A blue laniard round her neck held an I.D. card with her photograph, identifying her as Alicia González. “We’re taking you to have your injuries__”
“No!” Jeannie interrupted. “Take me to the waiting area of the surgery room where my husband is being operated.”
The nurse shook her head.
“We take care of you first. Your husband will be in surgery for some time. We’ll take you there after we make sure that you’re okay.”
“Go, Jeannie, please,” Archie interjected. “I’ll go back to the waiting room. If Lucas comes out before you do, I’ll come find you.”
“There, you see?” González said, beginning to wheel Jeannie away. “I promise we’ll have you out in a jiffy, and I’ll personally take you there.”
Jeannie turned her head to look at Archie, pleading silently with her eyes for him to keep his promise.
Then she disappeared into the restricted area.