McFarland’s never-ending heartache

Thomas Valles prays before the start of the Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986, five days after two teammates from the girls team were killed during a practice session.
Thomas Valles prays before the start of the Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986, five days after two teammates from the girls team were killed during a practice session.

Update, February 18, 2015: I have located my original images from the 1986 Kern County Invitational, the first race the McFarland girls and boys ran following the tragic accident that killed their teammates Herlinda Gonzalez and Silvia Diaz. I also found the images from the California Interscholastic Federation central Section South Area race two and one-half weeks later. I remember shooting both of these races as they were extremely emotional. They are presented here.

I don’t know if any city as small as McFarland, California, population around 6,500 back then, has endured as much heartbreak and despair involving their children as this town did in the mid and late 1980s. My coverage of two of those are detailed on this site (Show the World What Has Happened to My Son and Prom Night, a Crash and Six Teens Lost). On October 27, 1986, as parents were desperately searching for answers and help finding the cause of a cancer outbreak that was claiming the lives of the farming community’s children, and just a few months before the horrific Valentine’s Day car crash that claimed the lives of six teens from McFarland and neighboring Delano, two members of McFarland High’s cross country team were killed. Silvia Diaz, 16, and Herlinda Gonzalez, 14, were struck by a car during a practice run along one of McFarland’s roads.

The McFarland girls cross country team in 1986. Sylvia Diaz, 16, is second from left, seated on the bench. Herlinda Gonzalez, 14, is seated on the bench second from the right, the girl with the big smile. This photo was provided by their teammate, Norma Takahashi, middle of the standing row.
The McFarland girls cross country team in 1986. Silvia Diaz, 16, is second from left, seated on the bench. Herlinda Gonzalez, 14, is seated on the bench second from the right, the girl with the big smile. This photo was provided by their teammate, Norma Lopez, middle of the standing row.
Clip courtesy of Norma Takahashi, Slivia and Herlinda's teammate.
Clip courtesy of Norma Takahashi, Silvia and Herlinda’s teammate.

McFarland would continue to endure unspeakable heartache, though I didn’t work any of the other stories. They were the death of football coach Gerry Pitts, who suffered a heart attack and the Kern River drowning of 16-year-old James Lopez that summer, the death of McFarland High junior Stacey Morris in a traffic accident earlier in the year and the stabbing death of Daniel Gonzalez, 16, at a party in 1985. In the late 1980s, Eduardo Martinez, a popular student and football player at McFarland High, lost his life in a post-graduation car accident on the way to Avila Beach in a crash that also seriously injured several other teens. Fate apparently wasn’t cruel enough to McFarland in the 1980s. During the football season of 1991, Freddy Mendoza, 17, a captain on the varsity football team, collapsed during a game and died of a brain hemorrhage.

A movie starring Kevin Costner, “McFarland USA,” about cross country coach Jim White and the remarkable cross country team, is coming this February, and hopefully it is going to be a winner, because this town has paid its dues in a big way and deserves some positive attention and a little national love. This remarkable Los Angeles Times article and photo story, published in 1997, provides a great, richly-detailed picture of what the residents of this town endured.

November 1, 1986. The Kern County Invitational:

In these four photos, McFarland girls runner Tammy Carter finishes the Kern Invitational at Hart Park in Bakersfield and lands in the arms of coach Gary Pierson. Carter ran the race just five days after the accident that killed her two teammates.

McF_runner_girls_1McF_runner_girls_2McF_runner_girls_3McF_runner_girls_4

McFArland_boys_1
The boys team readies for the start of the 1986 Kern Invitational. From left are Victor Puentes (7), Johnny Samaniego (2), Damacio Diaz (5), Thomas Valles (16) and David Diaz.
McFarland_boys_2
Thomas Valles runs in the Kern Invitational in 1986. The team raced just five days after their teammates Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez were struck and killed by a car during practice.
McFarland_boys_3
David Diaz runs in the 1986 Kern Invitational at Hart Park.
McFarland_boys_4
Johnny Samaniego runs in the 1986 Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986.

November 13, 1986. The South Area Championships:

The McFarland girls cross country team competes in the South Area race in Hart Park in Bakersfield on November 13, 1986.

McFarland_girls_2McFarland_girls_6McFarland_girls_8McFarland_girls_web_1McFarland_girls_5In the two photos above, Norma Gonzalez and Hollie Wycoff after their race at the South Area championships, still grieving following the deaths of teammates Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez.

The parents of one of the girls arranged to have the team driven to the race in a limo, an effort to lift their spirits as they were still grieving after accident that killed Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez.
The parents of one of the girls arranged to have the team driven to the race in a limo, an effort to lift their spirits as they were still grieving after accident that killed Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez. From left are Eva Renteria, Hollie Wycoff, Delfina Herrera, Maria Herrera, Alicia Herrera, Tammy Carter, Norma Gonzalez and coach Gary Pierson.
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9 thoughts on “McFarland’s never-ending heartache

  1. Ruby Covarubias was the only survivor of the Valentines Crash..she came back to school on crutches..for what I can remember. School was so sad and in such disbelief they let us all go home..I remember Stacey and Jon’s accident…Sylvia and Herlinda…those were the saddest days of my life, but I loved that school and everyone I met and knew there. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.

  2. Let’s not forget the deadly crash of 1988 when Eduardo Martinez was killed on Hwy 46 on graduation day. When him along with Salvador Santillano, Martin Zamora, & Feliciano Salazar were heading to the coast.

  3. I remember that night of Sylvia and Herlinda’s accident. I was just a kid but my brothers went to school with them. I remember our phone was ringing off the hook with people calling to see if my brother Jose was okay because the news station posted a picture of their yearbook and my brother was right next to her and he to ran cross country.

  4. I happened 2 b working @ DRMC when the security guard came & said 2 girls were brought in through the Emergency Room & that they wete cross country runners. I felt like someone punched my stomach & deep down inside I had a feeling it was Herlinda Gonzalez. As I ran down the hallways, I saw Herlindas family & they begged me 2 ask the doctor & nurses 2 let them see Herlinda. I had known them because they lived 3 houses away from ours. I went in & Herlinda wss barely clinging 2 life & the family was allowed 2 see Herlinda. She was then transferred 2 I believe KMC. Herlinda passed away the next day. Sylvia Diaz has a brother name Raul & because of her death that’s why he became a priest. Mr. Gerald Pitts was a football coach & my boss while I was a student @ McFarland High & even after I graduated. He was a great man. All those that knew him, he always wore shorts, t-shirt & a lighweight jacket. Again, I happened 2 b working @ the hospital when the security guard came & said thry brought a coach from McFarland High, again I felt that gut feeling. So I ho running down the hallways & thete he was, gone. I couldn’t believe it. This man wore shorts t-shirts wether it was hot or freezing cold. He coached football. It was so hard 4 me 2 say goodbye 2 a good, teacher, boss & friend. The cancer cluster started on our street Industrial St. The 1st child 2 die was I don’t remember if his name was Frankie Gonzalez.I do believe there was something in the dirt or something, because in 96 my mother passed away from cancer. In 97, our neighbor passed away from cancer & across the street from us in 98 claimed the life of a woman from cancer. My friend Holly Gonzalez lost her brother Daniel Gonzalez from a stab wound @ a party. Freddy Mendoza was my sisters good friend. It was so sad that he died of an aneurysm. There were a lot of young kids that died 2 soon, I’m sure they r reunited in heaven watching down on us.

  5. I was raised in McFarland. One street away from Industrial St. I remember the kids getting cancer in the early 80’s. I remember so many young lives lost in or small town. My parents still live there. In the small house where I grew up. I love McFarland!! Although I have moved on. I am proud to say that I am from McFarland!!

  6. Wonderful movie, saw it today. I feel so saddened to hear of all the tragedy that struck McFarland.a town full of strong courageous people in my humble opinion. I enjoyed reading the comments as well. Thank you for sharing your stories.

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