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We still don’t know how to talk about floods
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‘Worst fears have been realized’: Family found dead in van swept away by Harvey flood

In one day, Ric Saldivar lost his parents and four young relatives in the Houston floods. They were traveling to his home on Sunday when their van was swept away. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)
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HOUSTON — Authorities on Wednesday confirmed their “worst fears” after they retrieved a van that had carried six relatives who were swept away in floodwaters as they tried to flee their home.

All six were found inside the van.

All six have been confirmed dead.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said he personally informed the Saldivar family about the grim discovery.

“Obviously, they are devastated, as we all are, as well,” Gonzalez told reporters Wednesday. “Our worst fears have been realized.”

Authorities recovered the bodies of Manuel and Belia Saldivar, 84 and 81, respectively, along with those of their great-grandchildren: Devy Saldivar, 16, Dominic 14, Xavier, 8, and Daisy, 6.

The van they were riding in had plunged into floodwaters after crossing a bridge over the engorged Greens Bayou on Sunday, according to other members of the family. Shortly after the van was submerged, police rescued a lone survivor — Sammy Saldivar, who had escaped from the vehicle and clung to a branch.

Authorities retrieved the vehicle after being notified by Saldivar family members who returned to the scene after waters had receded. Sheriff’s officials previously said that a search for the van was not possible in the storm.

The family has asked for privacy as it grieves, the sheriff said.

Even before the discovery of the bodies on Wednesday, the family knew the possibility of the missing relatives surviving was slim.

All were gone, Ric Saldivar told The Washington Post the day before police found the van.

Generations of Saldivars

Manuel and Belia Saldivar lived for many decades in a house off one of the bayous that threads through northeast Houston. It wasn’t a big house, and it wasn’t a wealthy neighborhood, and Manuel earned a diesel mechanic’s salary most of his life — but the Saldivars prospered nonetheless.

They raised five sons in that house on Lake Forest Boulevard. Some of those sons had children, and some of those children had children. And so, in their ninth decade on Earth, Belia and Manuel lived a short walk away from three generations of descendants, the youngest member being a 6-year-old great-granddaughter who loved to dance.

For several years, Ric Saldivar said, his parents had been losing their memories to dementia.

“Mom started first,” said the 53-year-old son of Manuel and Belia.

The disease progressed until this year, when she was 81 and would sometimes fail to recognize her husband’s face.

Manuel took care of Belia until he approached his 85th birthday this year. But then he, too, began to forget things.

“The goal was to keep them out of a home,” Ric said. “We wanted them in their house.”

A woman in labor was trapped by Harvey’s floodwaters. Then neighbors formed a human chain.

So one of the five sons, Sammy, left his carpet-laying job in Missouri and moved back in with the couple a few months ago. Yet another son, Danny, already lived in the neighborhood. And Danny’s daughter and her children did, too.

By the time Harvey bore down on Houston, it was a Saldivar neighborhood, through and through.

The Saldivars made a plan for the storm. Sammy, 56, would stay up through the night at his parents’ house, watching for the bayou to rise. If it did, he would load Manuel and Belia into his truck and head to Ric’s house, 10 miles south.

It seemed like a good plan, Ric said, but Sammy fell asleep as rain blasted the city Saturday night.

“The neighbors woke him up,” Ric said. By then, the water was rising fast.

Sammy’s truck was already stranded outside the house, so he walked with his parents down the street, to his brother Danny’s house.

Danny and his wife weren’t home; they had vacated the neighborhood hours earlier, Ric said. But they left keys and a van in case other Saldivars needed them. Part of the plan.

And other Saldivars would need them. Not just Sammy, Manuel and Belia — but also Danny’s four grandchildren on the next street. Their mother had stepped out for the night before the waters rose, Ric said.

“The 16-year-old daughter was basically babysitting,” Ric said.

They held out there for several hours. But Ric recalled phoning Sammy on Sunday morning, as the bayou consumed more and more of the neighborhood. “I told him, ‘You better get them over here soon.’ ”

So Sammy loaded his parents into the front of Danny’s van. In the back, behind a storage cage that Danny used to haul musical instruments, he sat the children:

The eldest was Devy. She had just turned 16 and loved 1960s hairstyles and boys, as Ric’s wife, Catherine Saldivar, recalled.

The two boys were 8-year-old Xavier and his brother Dominic, 14. And the youngest was 6-year-old Daisy. “A big goof” and a delight to all who saw her, Catherine said.

That’s how they left: seven Saldivars, setting out from home in a torrential rain.

Ric’s house was dry enough, and not too far away — at least on a map. But Houston was in chaos, divided into islands as waters claimed the streets. And so the Saldivars took a long route around the city, hoping to avoid the worst of it.

Sammy made it a mile or so east, until he came to a bridge where he could just see the tops of the guardrails peeking over the engorged Greens Bayou.

“Sammy said, ‘Well, maybe I should go back,’ ” Ric said. “Dad said, ‘No, you can cross.’

So Sammy tried.

“Dad was right,” Ric said. “He made it across the bridge. But on the other side of the bridge, the road dipped.”

Tragedy at the end of the bridge

And then the van was floating, bobbing, rocking in the rain-pummeled waters. Sammy’s father yelled at him to try the pedal, Ric said. He tried, but wheels underwater only spun the van, sending it off the pavement entirely and into the bayou.

Only Sammy made it out. He squeezed himself through his half-open window, Ric said, grabbed a tree branch and clung to it. Then he turned to his mother and father and grandnieces and nephews, and the sinking van that trapped them.

He tried to open the door to let Manuel and Belia out, but the door wouldn’t open, Ric said.

“He was yelling at the kids to climb out of the back of the van; I’m sure they couldn’t reach it,” Ric said. “He could hear the kids screaming but couldn’t push the doors open. That’s what he keeps hearing in his head. And the van just went underwater and was gone.”

A mother died saving her toddler daughter as they were swept away in Harvey flood

Sammy held on to that branch in the raging water for the better part of an hour, Ric said, yelling and screaming — until sheriff’s deputies finally came along in a boat and threw him a rope. But by then, it was too late to save the others.

Without naming the children, the Pasadena Independent School District confirmed that “four … students and two of their great-grandparents were swept away by the floodwaters of Greens Bayou while trying to escape the floodwaters of Harvey.”

“Our deepest sympathy for the family,” the district’s statement read.

Deputies took Sammy to a shelter after pulling him from the bayou on Sunday. There, he borrowed a phone and called his brother Danny and told him what had happened.

Then Danny told his wife, who told Ric, who called Sammy, who was crying. “He kept saying he was sorry, he was sorry,” Ric said. “We kept trying to tell him it wasn’t his fault.”

Bever and Wong reported from Washington. 

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