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Honoring a School-Bound Girl

Mass Celebrates Va. Bus Crash Victim

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page B01

Mourners were still filtering into the church half an hour after yesterday's funeral mass for Lilibeth Gomez began. By then, ushers had run out of white candles tied with pink ribbons and programs printed with a photo of the beaming 9-year-old, and the Northwest Washington church was standing room only.

The pews were packed with family, friends, school officials and others who came just to honor the little girl whose death Monday, in a school bus crash in Arlington, was so public that it touched strangers. Among the mourners were several Metrobus drivers in dark blue uniforms and scores of children near Lilibeth's age.

Rosa Gomez, center, heard her daughter, Lilibeth, memorialized by mourners as a child with "a heart of pure gold." (Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

They all stood beneath vibrant stained-glass windows at Our Lady, Queen of the Americas Catholic Church, gripping the candles and facing a small white coffin. A band wedged into a rear corner of the church led mourners in a series of Spanish hymns that spoke of love and salvation. Almost everyone in the congregation knew the words by heart.

Lilibeth, a third-grader at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School, died at the scene of the collision between a trash truck and the bus carrying her and 14 schoolmates. The crash claimed a second life Wednesday when Harrison Orosco, 7, who suffered a severe head injury in the crash, died at Children's Hospital. His family said his funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington.

Thirteen other children and both drivers were injured in the crash. The cause has not been determined. Transportation safety officials said the investigation could take weeks.

Lilibeth's death stunned the parish, Father Agustin Mateo said in a homily delivered first in English, then in Spanish. Just six days ago, he said, the little girl who was preparing to take her First Communion had sat with other children in the pews at the church.

Mateo told her parents, Jorge and Rosa Gomez, who came to the United States from El Salvador in the 1980s, that the profound love they felt for their daughter was the reason for their extreme sorrow -- a heartache, he said, the depths of which no one else could comprehend. But he said the family and church members were united by their sadness and the belief that brings them together each Sunday: that life with God is eternal.

"Lilibeth no está muerta," Mateo said. "Lilibeth está viva."

"Lilibeth is not dead. Lilibeth is alive."

Later, a few family members and friends filed to the front of the church, where they offered memories, words of solace and thanks to those who had taken time off from work to be there. Jorge Gomez, Lilibeth's 15-year-old brother, remembered a sister who loved soccer, jumping rope, the color blue and pizza with pineapple. She helped around the house, he said, but she always did her homework first.

Lilibeth's catechism teacher choked back tears as she spoke of her pupil. Another woman said Lilibeth had "a heart of pure gold." And one man said Lilibeth's family members now had an angel looking down on them from heaven.

As the ceremony ended, the coffin, crowned in a burst of white flowers, was carried out of the church to a black hearse. Mourners clutched one another tearfully as they watched it pull away. Lilibeth was buried in Silver Spring.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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