BRADENTON -- Gisela Herrera-Pardo was at a cousin's wedding in Bradenton on Saturday night when she heard about the earthquake in Ecuador.
The 28-year-old said she felt bad about what had occurred in her native country, but continued on with the celebration. She didn't yet know how severe the earthquake was, or how many lives it claimed.
Later that night, Herrera-Pardo said her husband, Camilo Pardo, received a call from one of Herrera-Pardo's nieces with the tragic news: Herrera-Pardo's maternal aunt Marjorie Elizabeth Macias Cruz, 58, had died in the earthquake along with her three grandchildren, Thiago Rafael Zambrano Cepeda, 4; Elias Gabriel Cepeda Macias, 23 months; and Leah Marcela Cepeda Macias, 26 months. The four had been crushed when the four-story building where Marjorie worked and lived in the coastal town of Pedernales had collapsed.
Herrera-Pardo couldn't contain her emotions early Monday evening as she sat in the Bradenton home of her cousin, Rosemary Stay. The acupuncture physician dabbed her eyes with a tissue as she recalled phoning her cousin, one of Marjorie's daughters, in Ecuador.
"She responded, but didn't tell me anything, she didn't tell me anything.... she'd hang up and I'd call again," Herrera-Pardo said in Spanish, tears spilling onto her cheeks. "All she did was cry, and I cried. I said 'No, no, no, no, no, no!'"
The number of people killed in the magnitude-7.8 earthquake Saturday had soared to at least 413 as of Monday, and more than 2,000 were injured. Though the earthquake shook the central coast of the South American country, its effects could be felt as far away as Quito, the capital -- a little more than 100 miles away. Rescue teams, including thousands of military personnel and police officers, have continued to dig through the rubble in search of more survivors.
"The first body that was recovered was of Thiagito, who was 4 years old," Herrera-Pardo said, her voice breaking. "When they saw Thiagito like that, that's when we knew there weren't any more alive... none of them."
Stay and Stay's sister, Paola Stay-Cruz, sat near their cousin with somber looks on their faces. Stay-Cruz, 31, said the bodies of their aunt and her other two grandchildren were later found. She had been holding them close to her, the family said.
"She was, until the end, caring for her grandchildren because, until the end, she tried to protect them," said Rosemary, 35. "It was like the instinct of a mother, to protect your children."
Herrera-Pardo and her two cousins were among those who stayed behind in Bradenton as six family members flew Monday to Ecuador. They said they feel helpless.
On Monday, Herrera-Pardo created a GoFundMe page to raise money for their family to have a new beginning.
"It's an anguish that has hit the entire family," Stay-Cruz said.
The women's expressions softened as they remembered their aunt. They described her as sweet, giving, and patient.
"She was a person who was loved," Rosemary said as a tear rolled down her right cheek. "Everyone loved her... everyone, everyone."
For information on the GoFundMe page, visit gofundme.com/6rzqdjdc.
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.