The city of Sweetwater will build a plaza next year as a memorial to four men from Brothers to the Rescue whose unarmed planes were shot down by Cuban MiG fighter jets 18 years ago.
Armando Alejandre Jr., Carlos Costa, Mario M. de la Peña and Pablo Morales were volunteers for the Miami-based nonprofit that coordinated rescue missions with the U.S. Coast Guard, spotting Cuban rafters over international waters. The organization also dropped pro-democracy leaflets over Cuba.
The Cuban Air Force shot down the two planes the men were flying in February 1996. The Cuban regime said the planes were flying through Cuban airspace, but an investigation by the United Nation’s aviation branch concluded that the planes were shot down far out in international airspace and in violation of established procedures.
Sweetwater officials rededicated a wooden bridge to honor the victims in 2009. Now the city is building a Brothers to the Rescue plaza in front of the 109 Tower student apartments that connects to the bridge.
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City officials want to finish the plaza by early 2016, so that it will be open for the 20th anniversary of the 1996 incident. Bronze plaques placed throughout the plaza will recount the sequence of events during that last mission, and memorialize each member of the group.
Miriam de la Peña, the mother of one of the pilots, lived in Sweetwater for a number of years while her son was growing up.
“All the families are very grateful to the city,” she said. “It is particularly touching for me.”
De la Peña’s son was the youngest in the group, and was on his way to becoming a commercial airline pilot through an internship with American Airlines. He was finishing school at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and flying on Brothers to the Rescue missions in his spare time. At 24, he had completed almost 100 search-and-rescue missions before he died.
“He was happy when he was called to a mission. It was very fulfilling,” de la Peña said. “He was saving lives — that’s what kept him going.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about 54 percent of Sweetwater’s 13,500 residents are of Cuban descent.
The architecture firm that the city hired for the project consulted with the families of the victims when designing the plaza. It will look like a large stone-floor corridor with four elongated seagull-shaped concrete structures, with wooden benches, trees and other greenery.
“Their call names for each other were seagulls,” said Cristina Canton, founding partner of NC-Office architecture firm, which designed the plaza.
Sweetwater Commissioner Manuel Duasso, who was in the city government when the planes were shot down, has pushed to build a major plaza to honor the pilots for years. With the recent boom in development, the city could finally afford to fund the project.
“My dream has been to make this plaza,” Duasso said. “It’s not about politics, it’s about being human and having a heart.”
NC-Office is working along with T.Y. Lin International Group to build the plaza and build a flood wall by the canal next to it and light up the wooden bridge and plaza. The projected cost is $600,000.
The firm is also looking into adding audio recordings to the plaques, said NC-Office partner Elizabeth Cardona, like adding sound bites from the radio communications of the military aircraft that shot down the planes.
Since the plaza will be an area students from Florida International University will walk through, the city and the families wished to make it an educational space for them.
The city will undergo other beautification projects along 109th Avenue with the TIGER Grant funds for the UniversityCity district; the plaza design and color palette will also influence the rest of the city’s improvements.
“This will be a model for, potentially, the rest of Sweetwater,” said Nikolay Nedev, from NC-Office.
Brothers to the Rescue
Brothers to the Rescue started out as a group that flew near Cuba looking for rafters. The group later dropped leaflets within Cuban airspace, antagonizing the Communist state. Cuban MiGs shot down two of the Brothers’ unarmed planes on Feb. 24, 1996.
These four men died in the incident:
▪ Pablo Morales, born in Havana, was spotted in the ocean by Brothers to the Rescue in 1992, and later joined the cause. He died at age 29.
▪ Carlos Costa, born in Miami Beach, flew in 141 missions in four years as a Brothers to the Rescue member. He died at age 29.
▪ Armando Alejandre Jr., born in Havana, fled Cuba with his family at age 10 and grew up in Miami, graduating from Florida International University. He joined Brothers to the Rescue to express his gratitude to the United States for giving refuge to Cubam exiles. He died at age 45.
▪ Mario M. de la Peña, born in New Jersey, worked as a volunteer pilot for Brothers to the Rescue while he finished school to become a commercial airline pilot. He died at age 24.
For more information, visit www.shootdownvictims.org.