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.
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.
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.