68 of its residents were killed in Cuba plane crash. Now Holguín is filled with grief

Family members, friends and neighbors of the town of Velazco, in the province of Holguín (Cuba), received Wednesday May 23, 2018, the remains of Jorge Luis Guerra, Lírise Cruz Pérez and Eddy Antonio Rodríguez, who died in the plane crash in Havana last Friday.
Family members, friends and neighbors of the town of Velazco, in the province of Holguín (Cuba), received Wednesday May 23, 2018, the remains of Jorge Luis Guerra, Lírise Cruz Pérez and Eddy Antonio Rodríguez, who died in the plane crash in Havana last Friday. EFE

A flamenco dancer. A woman on her way to meet her mother, visiting from the United States. A doctor on vacation from a job in Brazil. Ten couples from an Evangelical church. A sociologist finishing his master's degree. And a mother with a 7-year-old daughter.

Those are some of the 68 people who boarded an airplane in Havana a week ago on their way to their home city of Holguín in eastern Cuba.

They never made it.

After just a few minutes in the air, the airplane leased by Cubana de Aviación from the Mexican company Global Air crashed near the Havana airport. One hundred and ten people died immediately.

The crash changed the face of Holguín, a quiet city and province by the same name put on the world map by Pope Francis' visit in 2015. Holguín has produced other headlines over the years, including several due to hurricanes, but the loss of so many lives in one single event was unprecedented.

“You can imagine that, like in all of Cuba, this has been a very difficult blow,” Luis Ángel Cruz said by phone, with the sounds of the Holguín body shop where he works in the background. “One of our employees lost a first cousin. Holguín is not so big and you always know people. There's always a friend or an acquaintance” affected by the crash, he said.

The victims were born or lived in the municipalities of Holguín, Gibara, Mayarí, Cacocum, Calixto García, Moa, Banes, Cueto and Urbano Noris.

Mónica Leyva García y su hija Alexia.jpg
Doctor Mónica Leyva and her toddler Alexia. Facebook

A photo of Dr. Mónica Leyva Garcia and her daughter Alexia, who turned 15 months old on Friday, started to circulate on social networks the day of the crash and put a face to a tragedy that devastated hundreds of families. She was going to meet her husband, Guillermo Eugenio García, a plastic surgeon who works in an Holguín hospital.

“The flight time was supposed to be 50 minutes, according to my wife, who called me when she was already sitting down in the plane, ready for take off. And everything fell apart in just 14 minutes,” García wrote on Facebook. “Such pain! God, I know you did not invent airplanes. We did, and we're not perfect. But let's not have more of these things, which destroy families in a very painful and rapid manner.”

Cuban authorities, together with experts from Mexico and the United States, are investigating the causes of the crash. The many known problems experienced in the past by the company that owned the airplane have sparked many questions about why Cubana de Aviación decided to hire it.

But that investigation will take months. For now, the identification of nearly 60 of the remains has allowed the funerals to start.

The first remains arrived last Sunday in the coastal city of Gibara: art teacher Suyen Figueredo Driggs, 29, and her 7-year-old daughter Alexa Rivas Figueredo. That was followed by the funerals in the city of Holguín of several pastoral couples from the Church of the Nazarene, an Evangelical church with 137 temples around the island.

For those couples, fate played a trick on them: the event they had flown to Havana had been set for that date a year ago, said the Rev. Leonel Jesús López Ortiz, national superintendent of church. Other participants were luckier and took buses back to Holguín.

“This has been a big blow for everyone, not just for the church but for the entire town,” said López Ortiz. “But we know they enjoyed the event they attended, and there's testimony that they were happy.”

The 10 married couples left behind children aged seven to 15.

“We have a plan to give them and their families special assistance, with the help of the church. Thank God we don't have to worry about health and education,” the reverend said, because those public services are free.

Funerals for the crash victims have become public events, and not just because of the solidarity expressed by friends and neighbors. With the eyes of the world trained on the island, the presence of government authorities has been constant.

“The whole town went to the Municipal House of Culture to accompany the families in their grief, express their condolences and good wishes,” the local newspaper Ahora wrote about the funerals for Figueredo and her daughter. “The candles and flowers sent in the name of the people of Gibara and Cuba graced the locale, designated by the maximum authorities of the government and (Communist) party in the territory.”

The Catholic bishop of Holguín, Msgr. Emilio Aranguren, was having lunch when he heard about the airplane crash around noon on May 18 and went quickly to the local airport. Aranguren celebrated a Mass Tuesday in the city's San Isidro Cathedral for the victims and their relatives.

“Once again, I had the opportunity to understand what the words 'neighborhood' and 'family' mean for us in Cuba,” Aranguren wrote in a letter to parishioners later that day. “I found sincere pain, heartache, compassion (for those suffering) among those who were saying, 'the son of doctor so-and-so, who was traveling with the wife and daughter,' 'the dancer who lived across the street from my house and was moving to Havana,' 'the son of the old lady in Báguanos who is turning 107 years old this weekend'.”

The bishop said the families now need privacy to mourn their dead.

“I believe that, so many hours after the accident, the public part of these sentiments should cease now,” Aranguren told el Nuevo Herald. “The families need their privacy for their intimate pain. People need to cry by themselves.”

Amid the pain, Holguín residents also closely followed the fate of three women from the province who initially survived the crash.

But Grettel Landrove, 23, died Monday and Emiley Sánchez De la O, 40, died Friday, bringing the total number of fatalities to 112.

Grettel Landrove.jpg
Director Ana Meneses (left front) and Grettel Landrove (left) pose with other members of flamenco dance company Ecos. Compañía Flamenco Ecos Facebook

“The death of Grettel was really felt here because she was well known,” said Aranguren. A photo posted in the Facebook page Holguineros por el Mundo — Holguín natives around the world — showed several people carrying a sign that said, “Grettel, your neighbors will remember you in our hearts.”

Landrove had danced with several flamenco groups and was close to graduating as an industrial engineer. She had the biggest smile in several Facebook photos posted by the group she danced with for the past three years, Compania Flamenco Ecos.

"Grettel was a young woman very interested in improving her life. She was graduating from engineering, but her great passion was flamenco,” said Flamenco Ecos director Ana Meneses.

“As a person she was marvelous, with a lot of good values. She helped everyone, always dishing out happiness and offering solutions for any problems. She was very generous, like her family,” said Meneses. “For me, it's been very painful because I loved her like a friend. Her values as a human being were what we really needed.”

Landrove's funeral took place in Havana, where she had moved to finish her engineering studies.

“Grettel has left us, but a Cuban with a Gypsy soul like hers should be sent off the right way,” friend Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez wrote in a letter posted on Facebook. “Before her ashes, her fellow dancers sang and danced a sevillana with all the moans, anger and pain of the loss.”

All prayers now rest on Mailén Díaz, the last survivor of the fatal flight. The 19-year-old remains hospitalized.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres