Family recalls wreck 50 years later (w/video)
Dec. 4, 2013 at 6:04 a.m.
Fifty years ago Saturday, the De Los Santos family took a life-altering car ride.
There were no cellphones and no seat belts back then - just a yellow line on a curved road separating vehicles going opposite directions.
The family packed into its 1958 Chevrolet Impala and were passing through Westhoff on U.S. Highway 87 to pick up their grandmother in San Antonio.
Melba, then 12 years old, was sleeping in the back seat with brothers Gilbert, then 10, and Oscar, then 3. Gilbert's twin, Carrie, was happy to be in the front seat with mother, Carolina, and father, Jose, both 42.
Because her eldest siblings declined to go on the trip, Carrie had shotgun for the first time.
It was dark outside when Melba awoke to the sound of her mother screaming at her father in Spanish.
"Watch out," Carolina screamed in Spanish.
Melba heard later that both a pickup and their Impala crossed the yellow line for unknown reasons and overcorrected. The pickup hit their Impala head-on, she said.
The next thing she remembers is waking up in a ditch, where a woman was kneeling beside her.
"She said, 'You were in an accident, but you're going to be OK,'" Melba said.
Because of the seriousness of their injuries, Melba, Gilbert and Oscar, who were being treated at a hospital in Cuero, were not able to attend their parents' and sibling's joint funeral in Victoria.
"When we got to the hospital, I remember seeing my dad on the stretcher because they had asked me to identify him, and I did," Melba said. "I always feel like if I had known this was the last time I was going to see him, I would have tried to talk to him."
Melba, now 62, is looking forward to honoring her family's history with its younger generation at a Mass at Our Lady of Victory at 5:30 p.m. and over an invitation-only catered meal to follow at Our Lady of Sorrows' Trinity Hall on Saturday.
While Melba predicts she will be too emotional to say what she would have wanted to at their funeral 50 years ago, other family members and friends will build her up with love and support - the same love and support they've been dishing out since the day after the wreck left them orphaned, she said.
"God has plans for all of us. Guaranteed," said Melba's older brother, Joe De Los Santos.
On the day of the wreck, Dec. 7, 1963, Joe was a 17-year-old preparing for a date. He, brother Rudy, then 15, and sister Gloria Jean, then 19, stayed home because they had plans and did not want to be in the already crowded car.
One memory that haunts Joe is the last exchange he had with his mother.
"At noon, mom came home for lunch," said Joe, who is now 67. "She hugged me and said, 'I'm not going to see you anymore.' She meant for the rest of the day."
Gloria Jean, meanwhile, was visited by her mother in dreams afterward, which comforted her about her new role as the matriarch of the family. Although she received a scholarship and once aspired to be a teacher, Gloria Jean eventually dropped out of college to cook, clean and keep up with the children's sometimes complicated finances. She worked at Southwestern Bell.
"We never knew what it was to buy clothes" because our mother always sewed our outfits, Melba said. "We didn't even know our size."
The group was happier when they were together, even though there were noticeably three empty chairs each night at the dinner table, said Gloria Jean, who is now 69.
"That doesn't mean we don't argue," Joe said.
"That's the reason he graduated on a Sunday and left (to join the military) on a Monday," Gloria Jean added, chuckling.
But today, the family's faith in God is stronger than ever, she said.
"We have a lot to be thankful for," she said.