Best Pals in Life, Boys Now Paired in Tragedy : Profile: Victims of bus accident were neighbors, schoolmates and friends. Their parents try to deal with shock and grief.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In life, the little faces of Brian Serrano and Francisco Javier Mata were the faces of the Los Angeles to come. Apple-cheeked children. City children. Children of immigrants.

One was the son of a Salvadoran carwash worker, the other's mom baby-sat. They lived in the same crowded neighborhood west of downtown, shared their seat on the same crowded bus to school.

Francisco liked to go with his dad on Sundays to Griffith Park to watch the soccer games. Brian was all he talked about at home. Brian was cool, he told his mom. For a while, Brian even lived in an apartment with a swimming pool.

The two children who died in Wednesday morning's horrific bus accident were, according to their families, best pals in the way only 8-year-olds can be, and what there was to know about them could apply to almost any little boys: They loved sports. They were naughty and heartbreakingly sweet. Their loss was unspeakably cruel.

In death, however, they personified to many the Los Angeles of these bitter times, a city with a hateful knack for heaping its least-fortunate with new permutations of tragedy.

"Sometimes, we don't understand the way God works," the Rev. Leo Steinbock of St. Kevin's Roman Catholic Church struggled to tell Mata's father as the 30-year-old man sobbed openly Wednesday night.

It was not known what consolation was being offered to Serrano's mother, whose 7-year-old nephew, Mario Garay, was left critically injured by the crash. A babysitter for other mothers in the neighborhood, she did not find out about her son's death until she showed up at the local elementary school to pick up two kindergarten children for whom she cares, officials said. As police stood guard, a chaplain escorted the stunned and sobbing woman across the school parking lot toward her home.

Officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District said the two third-graders lived in the neighborhood surrounding Alexandria Avenue Elementary School on Oakwood Avenue--a section of the city that in recent years has burgeoned with Korean, Latino, Armenian and other immigrants. The streets are lined with stucco apartment houses and aging, tattered bungalow courts. Most of the students at Alexandria are the children of the working poor. Nine-tenths of them are Latino.

Like most Mid-Wilshire schools, officials say, Alexandria is packed beyond capacity. Principal Carol Labrow said 1,750 pupils fill the classrooms year-round; Francisco and Brian were among the more than 600 students she was forced to divert to other elementary schools this year.

The two boys, she said, were being bused because enrollment at Alexandria is first-come, first-served. Some kids get into their neighborhood classrooms, some don't. In the Mata family, for instance, Francisco was bused, but his big brother went to Alexandria.

At Glen Alta Elementary School, where the two boys were enrolled, teachers remembered them vividly.

"Brian was so full of energy," recalled Annette Gonzales, the bilingual instructor for the second and third grades. For several months, she said, she had worried because he was doing poorly in class.

Then one day, Gonzales said, she realized: "He couldn't see a thing. He needed glasses, but the family couldn't afford it." She got the PTA to donate the money from a special fund, and last week, when he finally got his new spectacles, "He walked around, looking at everything, observing everything," she said.

Kim Rumley, who had Francisco in her third-grade class, said he was "a top student."

"He would write me notes thanking me for being his teacher," she said. "He was just a great kid."

When Glen Alta Principal James A. Allen called an assembly to tell the students about the tragedy, the tiny audience gasped audibly and several teachers burst into tears. Allen struggled to swallow his sobs.

"He was the best of all of them," sobbed Francisco's mother, Luz de Maria Mata, 28, as she sat on the couch of the family's two-bedroom stucco apartment. Everywhere, Christmas bunting decked the shabby walls. Mourners wandered in and out, red-eyed.

Francisco Javier, she said, was the third of her five children. He was only a year old when she fled El Salvador on a visa with him and another son. Here, she supports her five children working for $5.10 an hour at a Yoshinoya Beef Bowl restaurant downtown; her husband earns minimum wage at a carwash. Until Wednesday, they saved their dreams for their children.

"He was always bringing me certificates from class, saying he was the best in school that week," the mother said in Spanish. "He would bring flowers home to me."

His life's ambition, she said, changed from week to week: A fireman. A policeman. A doctor.

But always, she said, his success involved softening life for his hard-working family.

"The other day, he told my mother, 'When I grow up, Grandma, you won't have to work anymore because I'm going to buy you a house,' " she said.

Standing in a courtyard outside the apartment, the child's father stood holding a photograph of the little boy. On most days, he said, he would awaken at 6:30 a.m. and get the children off to school, but on Wednesday he overslept and awoke 15 minutes late. Rushing, he ran to his son's room.

"I said, 'Get up, hijo , you're late,' " the father recounted carefully, in minute detail. "He got up, washed his teeth, combed his hair, put on his clothes and was out the door."

The stricken man fingered the photograph of his round-cheeked son.

"My son never liked to miss school."

Times staff writers Antonio Olivo and Lorenza Munoz contributed to this story.

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