"They were my brothers' // RESCUE PILOTS REMEMBERED

Published Feb. 25, 1997|Updated July 6, 2006

Every week, Melba Morales and her husband, Jose, tend to a small memorial off N Dale Mabry Highway, wiping down the granite, removing beer bottles, and keeping the small tiled area mulch-free. Plaques commemorate four Cuban exile pilots killed in a rocket attack by Fidel Castro's forces a year ago.

"They were my brothers," Jose Morales, 68, said Monday evening in front of the memorial, as the wind picked up and clouds thickened.

It was the first anniversary of the pilots' deaths, and the Moraleses were joined by about 75 people who came to pay tribute. They flew for Brothers to the Rescue, an organization that spots Cuban refugees floating across the Florida Straits and directs U.S. Coast Guard ships to them so they can be rescued.

The somber gathering was one of many across the country and in Cuba. In Miami, which has the largest concentration of Cuban Americans in the country, Brothers to the Rescue launched a seven-plane fleet to drop flowers and wreaths on the area where Cuban MiG jets shot down the two unarmed Cessnas last February.

Brothers to the Rescue was warned by both Cuba and the United States not to provoke another shooting, but the anniversary mission apparently occurred without incident.

"We pray for them for rest and at the same time, pray for Cuba's future," said Father Ramon Hernandez of St. Paul's Church in Tampa, who led part of the brief ceremony in Spanish. At one point, the group sang the pre-Castro Cuban national anthem.

Cuba and the United States have disagreed over whether last year's rocket attack occurred in Cuba's airspace, as the nation's authorities say, or over international waters, as U.S. officials assert.

What is clear, though, is that the shooting brought new rancor to Cuban-American relations that have festered since Castro's takeover. In response to the four deaths, the United States threatened to take punitive measures against countries trading with Cuba, located 90 miles off Florida's coast. That in turn has caused disputes with Canada, Europe and Mexico.

But to some who stood beside busy N Dale Mabry Highway, ignoring the puzzled stares of passing commuters, the pilots' deaths meant more than internal trade snares. It was a personal loss.

Morales said he flies for Brothers to the Rescue and had been on missions with those who died. He thinks of them daily, he said, and helped organize construction of the memorial, unveiled last December.

The Rev. Alberto Bueno, of St. Lawrence Church in Tampa, read from the Bible in Spanish and led prayers during the Catholic funeral service. The deaths were not in vain, he said.

"Even a person's death signifies something and certainly in the case of these four young men who risked their lives to bring about a new birth of freedom in their own country," Bueno said after the service was over.

Oscar Rodriguez, 55, said he drove from his home in north Carrollwood to the ceremony because he wanted to publicly honor the pilots who perished serving others.

"I come to give tribute to the four Americans killed," he said standing at the corner of N Dale Mabry and Columbus Drive where two street signs read, "Brothers to the Rescue Corner."

Said Rodriguez, "They tried to do something good for people they didn't even know."

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.