Forgotten hero: Boater saved 60 from Chile tsunami

Hector Osvaldo Gonzalez rescued more than 60 people from last year's devastating tsunami. Three times he crossed the roiling Maule River, hauling out people who had been sleeping in tents on a small island near where the river meets the sea.

He tried a fourth trip but turned back moments before a wall of water roared through, and scrambled ashore just as his boat was smashed to pieces.

His cousin — who shares the nickname "Lalo" — also jumped in a boat to attempt a rescue, but was swept away by the tsunami and drowned.

Two heroes in one family. But the one who tried and failed has been celebrated across the country, while the one who succeeded has been left in debt and obscurity, his valor unrecognized. Even his own relatives, who knew the truth, didn't publicly set the record straight — until now.

In the chaos that followed the magnitude-8.8 earthquake and tsunami that killed 524 people in Chile, word quickly spread of a man named Lalo who saved three boatloads of people in the face of the tsunami, only to die in the fourth attempt.

Many had confused Gonzalez, 47, with his dead cousin Osvaldo Alejandro Gomez, 38.

And when camera crews came to Constitucion to report on the rescue, the cousin's grieving mother did nothing to correct them.

Gomez's funeral was covered on Chilean television, which labeled him "Uncle Lalo, a hero of Constitucion." The Chilean Navy held a ceremony in his honor. The local rodeo club now carries his name.

When Gonzalez tried to correct the confusion he was ignored.

"Perhaps because the names are similar, there was the error, and the people who should have cleared it up didn't do it," Gonzalez said. "People have lied to benefit themselves. They've honored them at ceremonies. I don't need any ceremony, but what they have done is ugly."

The Gomez and Gonzalez families — about 40 relatives in all — used to be very close, camping on the islands together each summer. Dozens survived thanks to Gonzalez. But no one wanted to shame a grieving mother by correcting her in public. And since the mix up, many no longer talk with each other.

Now, when asked about the mistake, the drowned man's mother, Olga Gonzalez, said in an interview that she wanted to relieve herself of what has become a terrible burden. She acknowledged it was her nephew, not her son, who saved her and all the others. She said she should have corrected the mistake a year ago.

"My nephew had the courage to return to the island, because the river was coming in huge. We made it across with great difficulty, with the boat full of water," she said softly as she sat in her darkened dining room.

"They honored my son for being a hero, for having saved lives. He didn't save lives, because if he had, he would have saved himself as well," she added, her face downcast. "He didn't make it. He tried."

The mother, 59, said she told the truth to Constitucion's port captain just before the Navy ceremony, but he persuaded her not to change the story. "I told him the boy didn't save lives, but he told me he was a hero just the same," she said.

The port captain wasn't available when the AP sought to ask him about the mix-up.

The mother's sister said she had urged her to set the record straight.

"I told her that the time to have cleared this up was when the navy office honored her boy ... that's where the misunderstanding spread. The television came and she didn't clear it up," said the sister, Hilda Gonzalez, 64.

Olga Gonzalez says she can't explain why she didn't speak out. She still hasn't managed to apologize to her nephew. Her sister offered to go along with her if she tried. "We'll see," she said weakly.

The quake struck at 3:34 a.m. last Feb. 27 as people camped out on the islands — cherished vantage points for the fireworks that follow Constitucion's end-of-summer "Venice Night" festival. Most had no way of escaping.

Osvaldo Gonzalez ran to his boat, "The Humble Little Grandma." It took him 10 minutes to save the first 20 people, he recalled. "Then I made a second trip, came back just as full, with at least 20 other people."

In the third trip, the boat leaned to one side and filled with water as 20 or more people climbed aboard. "We had to fight, to grab onto tree branches, because the motor I had got tangled up with wreckage. There were trees and I shouted to the people to grab on to keep us upright."

By then, the rising water was carrying away entire houses. He had to navigate around the island and through the wreckage. Still, he tried a fourth time, and was nearly a third of the way across when his brother Alejandro shouted from the shore to "come back, look at what's coming!"

He looked out to sea and saw a black wall of water.

"It was the first wave — about eight meters (26 feet) high. I came back — I just made it."

He scrambled to safety and then watched as his boat was destroyed, along with the borrowed motor.

"I've been trying to get help for more than eight months to pay for the cost of this motor — 500,000 pesos ($1,050 dollars) they tell me," said Gonzalez, who works as a machine operator in a lumber mill. He said he's sent letters to local authorities, mining companies and the area's pulp paper plant, without response.

"Now I've thrown in the towel. We're trying to do something within the family to pay for the motor," he said.

Hilda's grandson Cristopher Espinoza, a journalism student, told the AP he too was on the island and witnessed Gonzalez rescuing Olga, Hilda and many other relatives. He said he understands his great aunt's grief, but said the their failure to correct the record has become a divisive burden.

"The person who saved lives was my godfather, who is named Hector Osvaldo Gonzalez Orellana," Espinoza said.

Gomez deserves honors, too, he said: "He's a hero, because he risked himself to go after us who were on the island. But unfortunately, he didn't save anybody."