Family of victim shoulders true burden of gas line explosion

Pedro Santos, 28, holds a picture of his brother Mario at a soccer tournament. Mario Santos, a Posen Construction employee, was operating a bulldozer when it hit an 8-inch natural gas line belonging to TECO Peoples Gas on Nov. 11.  As of Friday evening, Santos' 26-year-old brother Mario remained in critical condition in Tampa General Hospital's Regional Burn Center. Santos sustained burns to half his body as a result of the Nov. 11 explosion.

Photo by ELYSA DELCORTO // Buy this photo

Pedro Santos, 28, holds a picture of his brother Mario at a soccer tournament. Mario Santos, a Posen Construction employee, was operating a bulldozer when it hit an 8-inch natural gas line belonging to TECO Peoples Gas on Nov. 11. As of Friday evening, Santos' 26-year-old brother Mario remained in critical condition in Tampa General Hospital's Regional Burn Center. Santos sustained burns to half his body as a result of the Nov. 11 explosion.

Mario Santos, a Posen Construction employee, was operating a bulldozer when it hit an 8-inch natural gas line belonging to TECO Peoples Gas on Nov. 11. As of Friday evening, Santos' 26-year-old brother Mario remained in critical condition in Tampa General Hospital's Regional Burn Center. Santos sustained burns to half his body as a result of the Nov. 11 explosion.

Photo by ELYSA DELCORTO // Buy this photo

Mario Santos, a Posen Construction employee, was operating a bulldozer when it hit an 8-inch natural gas line belonging to TECO Peoples Gas on Nov. 11. As of Friday evening, Santos' 26-year-old brother Mario remained in critical condition in Tampa General Hospital's Regional Burn Center. Santos sustained burns to half his body as a result of the Nov. 11 explosion.

— Francisca Santos knows that thousands of homes and businesses were affected when a gas line exploded in Fort Myers more than a week ago, and that millions of dollars were lost.

But to the Bonita Springs resident and her brothers, the cost of Thursday’s accidents can’t be tallied in dollars and cents.

As of Friday evening, Santos’ 26-year-old brother Mario remained in critical condition in Tampa General Hospital’s Regional Burn Center.

Santos, a Posen Construction employee, was operating a bulldozer when it hit an 8-inch natural gas line belonging to TECO Peoples Gas. The ensuing explosion caused a major break in the Southwest Florida system and resulted in a loss of natural gas service to about 6,000 residential and 1,200 commercial customers in Lee and Collier counties.

The news coverage that followed, she said, buried the fact her brother was fighting for his life.

“Everyone asked ‘How’s Mario?’ and then when the news would come on it would be all about how the gas affected businesses and for just a brief moment on Mario,” said Francisca, 30. “That’s what hurt me the most. I wondered ‘How could that be?’ My brother is human. The gas outage was fixable, but my brother is in critical condition.”

Santos sustained burns to half his body as a result of the accident.

Family ties

Originally from Guatemala, Mario Santos is the third oldest of six children and has called Bonita Springs home for more than 8 years.

But unlike many sibling relationships, where everyone is into each other’s business, with some resenting it, oldest sister Francisca said the Santos siblings keep close but give each other space to have their own lives.

“For me, it’s been so wonderful for all of us to be here together,” said Francisca Thursday afternoon at her Bonita Springs home.

Soccer, the family said, is Mario’s passion.

And when it comes to the brothers’ participation in the Casa Mexico soccer league in Bonita Springs, Francisca and her brother Pedro Santos said it’s completely a family affair, even when they end up facing-off on opposing teams.

“In the final two weeks ago, Mario was on one team, while I and another one of our brothers were on the other,” Pedro said with a rueful smile adding his brother had been preparing for a tournament in Orlando prior to the accident. “They beat us. But it was fine.”

Francisca said she didn’t know who to cheer for, but she figured no matter who won, the whole family would celebrate.

“Every weekend we get together for dinner here,” she said adding that even her brothers who live in West Palm Beach make the weekly trek to Lee for the family gathering. “I’ve seen so many families that live apart because they don’t get along. We all love each other and are supportive of each other.”

And when it comes to her brother Mario, Francisca said he’s responsible, a hard worker and very family oriented.

A day they’ll never forget

As soon as the family got word of what happened Nov. 11, everyone gathered at Tampa General. The close-knit group is trying to stay positive for their brother.

“The first days were the hardest,” said Pedro Santos, 28. “The Friday afterward was the hardest for me.”

That day, the siblings learned that doctors didn’t expect Mario to make it.

“When he (Pedro) called and said that, I told him ‘Don’t say that.’ I know the doctors said that, but God is not going to abandon us,” Francisca said recalling the conversation.

Since then, Mario Santos has began making a very slow recovery, so the family has split visiting duties so most can make it to their jobs.

It does hurt seeing her little brother in the state he is, Francisca said.

“I do get emotional. I do cry and let it out,” she said.

Initially it was also difficult for her to hear well wishers say to her ‘He’s going to be alright.’

“They haven’t seen him. They don’t know the real state he’s in. He is in critical condition,” she said. “I know that he’ll get through this, but he is not better. He may be improving, but he’s still not doing well.”

It’s the family’s faith that has helped them cope in a situation that none of them ever expected to deal with.

“We’ve prayed. I put it in God’s hands,” said Francisca adding that she’s found comfort and peace through her faith. “I’ve spoken with our pastor and he’s also praying for Mario.”

Yet the family is under no illusion that Mario will immediately recover from the incident.

He still has to go undergo multiple surgeries for skin grafts and months, if not years, of rehabilitation.

“It (his recovery) is going to be very long and hard,” Pedro said.

Helping hand

The Bonita Springs community was in shock after learning of Santos accident, said Juan Romero president of Casa Mexico a Bonita Springs adult soccer league.

In this time of need, he said they were pulling together for one of their own.

Romero said the league’s captains met Saturday to figure out what the group could do to help Santos and decided to open an account with Bank of America to help the family defray medical costs.

Donations can be made to the ‘Casa Mexico-Mario Santos fund’ [account # 229032800949] at Bank of America, Romero said.

In addition, the league will host a Thanksgiving Day soccer tournament from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday at Marni Fields located on Southern Pines Drive just off East Terry Street in Bonita Springs.

The cost for teams who want to participate is $95, Romero said. All the money raised will go to Santos’ medical fund.

“Right now, we have six teams registered and we hope that more will turn up,” he said.

News of the tournament for Mario and the outpouring show of support from the community are overwhelming but welcome, said Pedro Santos.

“From the bottom of all of my siblings’ hearts, we are grateful for all them putting this together,” he said.

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