Va. tornado victims remembered as pillars of the Filipino community in Jersey City

Lord N. Balatbat and Lolibeth E. Ortega were pillars of the Filipino community in Jersey City — the sort of people who would take you in for a meal, fix your car, find you a job and even set you up with a spouse.

That is how Nick Fallarme remembers them. Now, Fallarme says, the same community that gathered around the generous couple in life is reeling from their death. The husband and wife, both 38, were killed Thursday by a tornado that swept through a campsite on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where they were vacationing.

Their oldest child, a 13-year-old son, remains hospitalized in critical condition. Two daughters, ages 11 and 7, were rescued from the wreckage of the family’s tent at Cherrystone Family Camping Resort and are now staying with Ortega’s sisters in Jersey City, according to Fallarme.

The campsite near Cape Charles, Va., is picking itself up from the devastating storm, Northampton County Sheriff David Doughty Jr. said on Tuesday.

Businesses and residents donated supplies and volunteered to staff an emergency shelter, where about 500 people stayed after fleeing the campsite. Forestry experts helped remove the fallen trees and identify those that might be unstable.

Following an all-day community clean-up on Thursday, the campsite plans to reopen Friday morning.

But for the extended Balatbat and Ortega families, picking up is far harder.

There are medical bills to take care of, funeral expenses to cover, two suddenly orphaned girls to raise and a critically injured boy to fearfully monitor.

A friend who worked with Balatbat at Walgreens set up an online page to collect money, which will be placed in a trust fund for the children. In just three days, 280 people have contributed more than $19,000.

“They were the most perfect family,” said Fallarme, who described Balatbat as his best friend. “Everybody knew them. Everybody loved them. Their kids were great. Their family was great.”

Fallarme described Ortega as “like my second mom.”

“Even if she doesn’t have time, she still makes time for everybody. Just so everybody could be happy,” he said. She could always squeeze in an extra seat at the dinner table, and everyone was invited when the family barbecued almost every night — even in the middle of cold New Jersey winters.

Her husband, also, was “the center of everything,” Fallarme said.

“He knew how to do everything. He knew how to fix motorcycles, fix plumbing, fix the house. Everything that a human could do, he could do it.”

Balatbat encouraged Fallarme to apply for a job at Walgreens. He got it, and the best friends became co-workers.

“He treated every one of his friends like his family,” Fallarme said. And in fact, the two friends really did become family, just a few months ago. Balatbat and Ortega thought that their longtime friend, whom they had counseled through some failed relationships in his 20s, would get along well with Ortega’s first cousin, Jelyn Ortega, who was living in the Philippines.

The two hit it off so well on Skype that Fallarme eventually flew across the world last summer to meet Jelyn Ortega and her family in person. By the time he went back to the airport to come home, he knew he wanted to marry her. She came to America in March, and they wed in April.

Three months later, Fallarme, now a cousin by marriage and an official part of his best friend’s family, joined in for the Balatbats’ annual trip to Cherrystone, where they celebrated Ortega’s birthday each year.

On the morning of July 24, 10 to 12 family members were in their large tent, Fallarme said. They had no warning of the approaching tornado: Just as the alert started to blare on somebody’s cellphone, the sky went dark.

“The clouds just went black all of a sudden. The rain and the wind came in like three seconds,” Fallarme said. He and Balatbat rushed to pull a tarp over the entrance to the tent, and hail or debris rained down on them.

Hit by something — maybe a branch, maybe the rice cooker that was near the entrance to the tent — Fallarme said he blacked out briefly. When his vision returned, he saw Balatbat on the ground.

“I was like, ‘Best friend, don’t leave me,’ ” Fallarme said. “We knew he was gone from that moment, just by the look on his face. Then all in our minds was to save the kids.”

Still fighting heavy wind and rain, several uninjured men managed to extricate the two young girls, who were pinned between three tree branches beside their mother. A nurse staying nearby tried to revive Ortega, to no avail.

They also dragged heavy branches off Jelyn Ortega. She had suffered a broken pelvis and remains hospitalized.

Doughty, the sheriff, said that the condition of two adult patients, who had been transferred to hospitals out of the area in Richmond and in Maryland, was not known on Tuesday. Thirty more patients had been treated and released from area hospitals.

Fallarme foresees a long road ahead for his family. He worries about the U.S. immigration proceedings that his newlywed wife was still in the process of completing, and about her medical bills, since she did not yet have insurance in the United States. He does not know how she will be able to access their new basement-level apartment as she overcomes her injuries. He knows the network of family members will be challenged to care for the badly hurt young boy and his two grieving sisters.

“It’s gonna be hard. I’ve been asking everybody for help,” Fallarme said. But he said that the community will display the same sort of boundless generosity that Balatbat and Ortega were so known for, in their memory, as they care for their children.

“The reason why I think somebody saved me is they wanted me to save the kids.”

Julie Zauzmer is a local news reporter.
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