LUFKIN, Texas — Alonso Guillén and Tomas Carreon were born in a Mexican border town along the Rio Grande, later moving with their families across the river to Texas as children and growing up as undocumented immigrants in the same neighborhood. Last week, upon seeing the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, the two friends drove 100 miles together to help rescue those caught in the flooding caused by the worst downpour in US history.
“I told him not to go,” said Carreon’s wife, Stefany Carreon. “I told him I had a bad feeling.”
They went anyway, and didn't return. Days after their boat capsized in the raging current of an overflowing river, their families learned that they’d lost their lives.
“Both of them, they had a servant’s heart,” said Carreon’s cousin, Sonia Bermudez. “They impacted people in ways that we may never completely understand.”
News of their deaths, among at least 50 others caused by the storm, spread fast and far, fueled by the fact that Guillén was a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, a program that protects undocumented immigrants who arrived as children from deportation. Carreon, who became a permanent resident when he got married, was also eligible for DACA consideration. The same week Guillén, 31, and Carreon, 25, headed toward Houston, it was reported that President Donald Trump was considering ending the policy, reigniting the national debate over who belongs in the country and who should be pushed out.
For loved ones gathered on Monday to mourn the loss of the two young men and share their memories, the pair stood out as unifying forces in the already tight-knit Latino community of Lufkin, evidenced by the very decision that led to their end — risking their lives for citizens of a country whose government was considering taking action to kick out those who had entered the country as they had.
Piedras Negras, a town of about 150,000 residents, sits within eyesight of Texas along the Rio Grande. Kids there grow up playing in the river, learning to be strong swimmers because of its current. But the dangers of the rushing water were familiar to locals: Tomas Carreon's grandfather, also named Tomas, drowned in the river.
Like Carreon and Guillén’s families, many of the town’s residents eventually made their way north into Texas, seeking economic opportunity. And like others from Piedra Negras, many of them have ended up in Lufkin, a small working-class town of 35,000 people.
Today, about a quarter of Lufkin’s residents are Latino, according to the US Census, and roughly 11% of them were not born in the United States. Some neighbors in Piedras Negras have found themselves neighbors once again in Lufkin, basically transplanting part of their community from Mexico and taking it north of the border.
So many people from Piedras Negras made their way to Lufkin, that some began trying to establish a church in town like the one they left behind, said Bermudez, an associate pastor of Emanuel Assembly of God Church.
Carreon and Guillén’s parents lived just blocks away from each other in Piedras Negras but it wasn’t until their families moved to Lufkin that the boys met and became friends.
Guillén was 15 years old when he crossed the border illegally with his family. Carreon was 8 when his family made the trip legally, but when their visa expired, they decided to stay in the country.
Growing up, Carreon had an energetic and care-free streak about him. He was affectionately playful with his family, his sisters said, following up his kisses with soft punches to their arms. He was often the first to crack a joke or lend a helping hand, they said.
“If you needed a dollar and all he had was a dollar, he’d give it to you,” Tzivan Vasquez, Carreon’s brother-in-law, said.
Tomas Carreon and his 6-year-old son Tomas Alonso
And despite his undocumented status, Carreon was an outgoing member of Lufkin’s community. He participated in soccer clubs and coached his son’s tee-ball league. He worked as a mechanic at the family’s car shop in town, and when neighbors’ cars broke down, he was the first to volunteer to go pick them up, his sister, Alejandra Carreon, said.
“Or like he'd say, ‘To the rescue,’” she added.
His friend, Alonso Guillén, was no less popular within the community. Friendly and dependably cheerful, Guillén worked for free for years at a local radio station, Super Mix 101.9.
Guillén doggedly practiced projecting his voice, honing pronunciation, and mastering the sophisticated radio equipment at the station.
“He was always asking questions, always asking,” his father, Jesus Guillén said.
Two years ago, he finally earned a job at the station hosting a show from 3 to 6 p.m.
“He had no formal education of music,” his brother, Jesus Guillén said, but he was hungry to learn.
He took on the name of DJ Ocho, adopting the childhood name close family and friends knew him by. Ocho is Spanish for eight, but the origin came from when Guillén was only a toddler and, unable to pronounce his name Alonso, would instead say, “Ocho.”
Guillén, his father Jesus said, told family that with or without DACA status, he’d make something of himself. But his father convinced him to apply.
After becoming a professional DJ, Guillén continued to volunteer his time. So when his son told him he wanted to go to Houston to help people affected by the storm, Jesus Guillén said he looked at Alonso with a wary eye. Relatives were used to Alonso taking on the burdens of others. As a kid, he would fight playground bullies who picked on other kids, his sister Rita Guillén said.
“Alonso wouldn’t allow injustices,” she said. “That was just who he was.”
The first night Alonso brought up traveling to Houston, his father said he was able to convince him to stay home. But Jesus Guillén said he knew his son too well to know he could not convince him twice. The next day, Alonso was determined to go.
“I asked him, ‘So no matter what I say, I’m not going to convince you, am I?’” Jesus Guillén said, noting that a bad feeling was rising in his gut at the time.
Alonso didn’t say anything, but Jesus Guillén, aware of his son’s stubborn streak, knew the answer. That almost reckless generosity was one of the many attributes Guillén and Correon had in common, friends and family said.
Charlie Riedel / AP
“He wanted to help people,” Bermudez said of Correon. “They didn’t want him to go, but they couldn’t stop him.”
The pair connected on Facebook with a group of other Lufkin residents planning to travel to the Houston area in Harvey’s wake. They were among the army of volunteers converging on the disaster zone, where local law enforcement agencies, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the storm, were calling on civilians with boats to help with the rescue effort.
Before leaving his house on Tuesday evening, as floodwaters to the south forced thousands to evacuate their homes and left thousands more stranded in them, Carreon told his six-year-old son where he was going.
“Make sure to bring diapers, baby wipes, and food because they need them,” his son, Tomas Alonso, replied.
Carreon and Guillén met with the rest of the group at a gas station, then began their journey south. With at least one boat in tow, they stopped north of Houston, in Spring, which suffered some of the worst flooding in the region. The pair, joined by Luis Ortega, launched their boat down Cypress Creek to help those in need of rescue.
The three men were on their way to a flooded apartment complex when their boat struck a bridge on Interstate 45, Guillen’s father said. The current beneath the bridge sucked the small boat under the roadway. The small engine, he said, was too weak to overcome the strong current and the boat flipped.
A resident who lives near the river later told relatives that he heard shouts in the darkness. The man took his own boat into the river but found only Ortega, who was clinging to a tree. The current was too powerful for his boat to continue further down the river.
Stefany Carreon woke up to a phone call at around 2:30 a.m. A friend of Carreon told her he’d been contacted by a member of her husband’s group with a message: Carreon and Guillén were missing.
“We were trying to save people and we crashed,” Ortega told Carreon’s sister, Claudia, on the phone after he was released from the hospital.
Early Wednesday, several loved ones rushed to Cypress Creek to search for the young men. With local law enforcement backlogged with calls for assistance, the family combed the area on their own, along with a few nearby residents. As word of their disappearance spread on social media and local news outlets, others joined the effort on Thursday.
David J. Phillip / AP
On Friday, as Carreon’s father prepared a boat for another day of searching, Tzivan Vasquez, Carreon’s brother-in-law, spotted a white object in the river. It was the body of Carreon, his sneakers bobbing above the water.
Two days later, in almost the same spot, Guillén’s brother-in-law, Rauvel Rodriguez, jumped into the water and recovered Guillén.
Their relatives were still stunned by the loss. Inside a bright blue stucco house with a living room filled with children’s toys on Monday, Guillén’s father and brother alternated between laughter and tears as they reflected on his life and death. Adding to their pain was the fact that Guillén’s mother, who lived in Piedras Negras, was unable to cross the border even as her son was set to be put to rest.
Rita Guillén had previously used a visa to visit her family in the US, but it was revoked in 2009 after immigration officials accused her of violating the terms of her travelers status.
While her son was missing last week, she went to the US border entry at Eagle Pass hoping Customs and Border Protection officials would grant her a humanitarian visa and allow her to be with her family.
“They told me I had the violation, so I couldn’t,” Rita Guillén told BuzzFeed News. “I yelled out, crying.”
Within 15 minutes, she said, she was turned away.
Now her family is working with the Mexican Consulate in Houston to find a way for her to enter the US for her son’s funeral.
CBP officials told BuzzFeed News they have no record of Rita Guillén applying for admission this year. The agency, however, confirmed it was working with the Mexican Consulate and other non-governmental groups to allow her into the country.
“My poor wife,” Jesus Guillén said, his voice breaking. “She couldn’t come, and it’s like her mourning is twice as hard.”
On Monday afternoon, visitors passed through Guillén's blue stucco house to offer condolences to the family. A child offered the guests styrofoam cups filled with sliced fruit while a relative of Carreon brought cake for those sharing in their grief.
Across town, Carreon’s loved ones gathered at the Emmanuel Assembly of God Church for a memorial service. Some of them wore white shirts with an image of his face printed on the back.
“He said, 'I'm going to come back tomorrow,'” Stefany Carreon said, as they gathered in the pastor’s office recalling memories of her husband. "And he didn't."
One day before Harvey hit, Tomas Carreon returned home with a gift for his children: a german shepherd puppy that drained the final $600 in his bank account. His wife was initially unhappy with the purchase, but came around as she watched her husband parade the dog into their home and describe the pet as an extension of himself, a loyal guardian for the household when he wasn’t around.
“This dog is going to watch you grow up,” she heard him tell their kids. “This dog is going to take care of you and protect you.”
Her three children, ages 6, 5, and 1 years old, are only starting to comprehend the permanence of their loss, Stefany Carreon said.
At school last week while his father was missing, their eldest child, Tomas Alonso, spoke proudly to his teachers.
“My daddy was out there helping," he said.
Adolfo Flores contributed to this report.