Classmates of two third-graders killed in a school bus accident this week placed flowers at a makeshift memorial and released balloons into the Eastside sky Friday to commemorate the boys.
"They will be in our minds and hearts forever," said an emotional James A. Allen, principal of Glen Alta School in Lincoln Heights, where the two boys were bused from their crowded neighborhood west of downtown.
As a bank of news cameras recorded the event on the school lawn, students, parents, educators and others recited prayers and testimonials recalling Francisco Javier Mata and Brian Serrano. One by one, a line of more than 400 pupils dropped flowers on the memorial site, which included balloons and color photographs of the two close friends.
School officials dedicated a newly planted tree next to the flagpole; U.S. and California flags stood at half-staff. A playground mural of the boys, with materials donated by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, is planned.
Los Angeles authorities, investigating why the malfunctioning city garbage truck that caused the accident was allowed on the streets, have pledged to cover funeral costs. Among those in attendance Friday were City Council members Mike Hernandez and Jackie Goldberg.
School officials cited an outpouring of community support in the deaths of the two 8-year-olds. The boys were emblematic of a new generation of Southern Californians whose parents have emigrated from Mexico and Central America.
Francisco arrived as an infant with his mother and older brother from El Salvador as the civil war raged there. Two younger siblings were born in Los Angeles. The eldest brother remains in El Salvador because the parents have been unable to secure a visa for him. The boy's father earns minimum wage at a city carwash; his mother works at a Japanese fast-food outlet.
Brian was the only child of Maria Serrano, a single mother from Mexico. Brian Serrano's cousin, Mario Garay, suffered a fractured skull in the accident but is recovering. A heartbroken Maria Serrano did not make it to Friday's assembly.
But Mata's parents and grandmother were present. His mother, Luz de Maria Mata, sobbed openly.
Also among those in attendance was the team of firefighters that initially responded early Wednesday to the accident scene near Temple and Alvarado streets, where a hydraulic rod protruding from the garbage truck raked the youths' school bus, killing the boys.
Grieving students present Friday included 10-year-old Thelma Rodriguez, a native of Guatemala who was on the same bus Wednesday but escaped unhurt. Thelma was a close friend of Brian, who used to defend her younger brother from bullies, her stepmother explained. Thelma, displaying effects of the trauma that has struck many of the school's students, has hardly eaten or slept since the accident, her stepmother said. The girl woke up Friday dreaming of Brian.
As mourners left the school lawn, Thelma lingered alongside the pile of wilting flowers, her eyes welling with tears. A teacher's assistant finally ushered the stricken girl inside.
Fund-raising efforts have begun on behalf of the youths' families. Donors can write checks to the Glen Alta Student Body, Glen Alta School, 3410 Sierra St., Los Angeles, Calif., 90031, or call the school at (213) 223-1195.