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Neighbors rush to save infant injured in tornado

REESE DUNKLIN | 1/11/2016, 11:10 a.m.
The winds had finally calmed when Debralee King and her husband ventured out to check on their horses and see ...
The damaged home where Daniel and Zuleyma Santillano lived with their newborn and three older children in Blue Ridge, Texas, north of Dallas. The Santillano's newborn was killed when the home was destroyed by a tornado on the evening of Dec. 26. Reese Dunklin

BLUE RIDGE, Texas – The winds had finally calmed when Debralee King and her husband ventured out to check on their horses and see what damage the tornado that stormed through had caused on Dec. 26.

As King stood in her yard Saturday night, she heard a neighbor’s scream. Then she saw Jose Daniel Santillano – shirtless, shoeless and running toward her with his newborn girl in his arms.

“He wanted me to take her to the hospital,” King said. “He was frantic. His wife was still trapped.”

With that, King was thrust into an effort to save what appears to be the youngest victim of a powerful line of storms that spawned multiple tornadoes, destroyed several hundred homes and displaced residents throughout Dallas’ suburbs.

King said she and another neighbor got in a vehicle with the infant, Aleya, and began driving. She could see the child was gravely injured.

“I kept saying, ‘Oh my God. Be okay, baby. Be okay,” King recalled. “Her little hand was cold. I kept praying.”

She and the neighbor found a game warden about five minutes away, she said. He called paramedics and began CPR on the girl until an ambulance arrived, according to King and Captain Jim Moody of the Collin County sheriff’s department.

“She was already gone,” King said. “The poor little girl didn’t make it.”

It remained unclear Monday whether Aleya Santillano died in the tornado or had briefly survived, Moody said.

Authorities in Collin County, just north of Dallas and home to tiny Blue Ridge, said they were still fleshing out the chronology. King’s account matched the details they had thus far, Moody said.

After Santillano handed over the child, King said, he rushed back to the mobile home he shared with his wife, Zuleyma, and three older children. King said she couldn’t see through the darkness to know then that the trailer had been blown about 50 feet off its base and laid in a pile of wood and aluminum.

First responders showed up and took the husband and wife to a hospital. He was listed in good condition Monday and she was in critical condition, the hospital said. The other children were not seriously injured.

Elsewhere in Collin County, Jerry Lee Brazeal and Jerry Funderberk Jr. were killed in a tornado in Copeville, authorities confirmed Monday.

Eight people were killed in Dallas County, including a 1-year-old, according to the medical examiner’s office there.

In Blue Ridge, a church volunteered to let the Santillanos stay in an empty parsonage while they recover, said Judy Phifer, a congregant and teacher at the elementary school the family’s older children attend.

“We all had some damage (in Blue Ridge), but it was all minute compared to what they suffered,” Phifer said.

King said she has been in touch with Zuleyma Santillano’s sister and mother. The family was too distraught Monday to talk publicly, the sister told King.

“It’s bad enough that the tornado took their home,” King said. “But to take the baby, too, that’s wrong.”

North Texas in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 tornado

Associated Press

Preliminary figures show the 10 twisters that tore through Collin, Dallas and Ellis counties on Dec. 26 caused $1.2 billion worth of insured damage across North Texas. The damage is among the area’s costliest in recent years.

Officials in the Dallas suburb of Garland say the total number of homes damaged by a tornado over the weekend has reached more than 780.

Garland police said Tuesday that of the 783 homes damaged, 547 have been deemed safe and 236 are uninhabitable. Also, an apartment complex was deemed unsafe.

Eleven people died when nine tornadoes swept through the Dallas area Dec. 26. The National Weather Service said an EF-4 tornado, with winds up to more than 200 mph, hit Garland, where eight people died.

The Garland victims were: 1-year-old Kamryn Crain of Garland, 19-year-old Jose Oviedo Juarez, 27-year-old Petra Ruiz of Dallas, 30-year-old Kimberly Tippett of Garland, 32-year-old Lashondra Whitaker, 42-year-old Sharva Sanders of Fort Worth, 58 year old Timothy Harris of Greenville and 77-year-old Cecil Lowrie of Garland.

The American Red Cross continues to assist people who have been displaced. For assistance, call 214-678-4800 or visit http://www.redcross.org/local/northtexas.