Before hellish deaths in nursing home meltdown, they lived full, productive lives

They came into life surrounded by family — and lived full lives; some of them had children, grandchildren, homes and careers.

But they died agonizing, lonely deaths.

Some could no longer speak and walk. Others were blind; many had been robbed of their memories years before.

A few had no family left.

“It was almost as if they were thrown in a corner to die,’’ said Linda Horton, whose friend, Carolyn Eatherly was among eight people who perished in the unbearable heat of a Hollywood nursing home that had lost power during Hurricane Wilma.

“We need this to be a reminder that older people in this country should be celebrated, their stories should be told and their wisdom should be shared,’’ Horton said.

The cause of the eight victims’ deaths has not been released, but it was a cruel epitaph for those most vulnerable — and a tragedy that brought new scrutiny of how Florida and the nation care for elders, those with disabilities and the infirm.

The residents, who ranged in age from 71 to 99, fell ill after the cooling system broke down at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills.

The facility lost power on Sunday, and had only one operable generator, which did not run the building’s central air conditioning. Temporary coolers eventually quit.

As the criminal investigation continues into what happened, family and friends of those who died found some solace in their memories.

“My father came here from Colombia in 1970 to give his family a better life,” said Pedro Franco, whose father, Miguel Franco, 92, died. His mother, Cecilia, 90, was also a resident at the nursing home. She was treated for dehydration and is recovering at Memorial Regional Hospital — which is just across the street from the nursing home, located at 1200 N. 35th Avenue. More than 100 others were treated at the hospital.

“She has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t know anything that happened,” Franco said of is mother, who had been in the home for eight years. His father joined her earlier this year when he lost his ability to walk.

Before going into the home, the father would visit his wife several times a week, even though at times she wasn’t able to recognize him and other family members.

“We thought that was the best place for him to go, since he wanted to be with my mother,” the son said.

The elder Franco worked two jobs to earn enough money to bring his family, one by one, to the United States. In Colombia, he worked as an airplane mechanic for 24 years, and when he came to this country, at 55, he continued to work part-time at night at Miami International Airport, while working a day job as a repairman for Miami-Dade Parks and Recreation.

“He had to do that to bring his family here because that cost a lot of money and he wanted something better for us,” Pedro Franco said.

A retired seamstress

Albertina Vega came to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was 17 years old. She worked for many years as a seamstress in New York before retiring and moving to Florida with her husband.

They were married more than 30 years, but had no children, said Carmen Fernandez, a friend who took care of Vega for the past 35 years.

Vega’s husband died in 1986.

“I promised her husband I would stay close to her until the last minute that she died,’’ Fernandez said.

“She was by herself and had no kids and she had family but nobody cared about her.’’

Vega, 99, went into the nursing home about 10 years ago when she lost her eyesight and was diagnosed with dementia. It was a convenient move, since Fernandez lives next to the nursing home and could visit her often.

Fernandez said she was in contact with the nursing home after the hurricane and was told that Vega was fine. Then, only a day later, on Wednesday, they called to tell her that Vega had died.

It wasn’t until the police arrived that she learned of the agony that her friend had gone through.

“They never said anything about a problem. They should have called me. I would have got Albertina out of there and brought her to my house,’’ she said.

Aspiring artist

Betty Hibbard, 84, and Carolyn Eatherly, 78, had never married and had no family, friends said.

Both of them suffered from dementia and were cared for by friends until their health deteriorated.

Eatherly was born and raised in Bowling Green, Ky. She and Linda Horton were friends for about 30 years. Eatherly moved to Florida to care for her mother until her death.

She studied art and wanted to be a painter, but worked as a bookkeeper for a number of years until the early onset of Alzheimer’s struck her in her 50s.

Horton cared for Eatherly for many years, until her friend began leaving the house and wandering the neighborhood. When Eatherly first went into the nursing home, Horton visited her regularly, but the visits grew too painful for both of them.

“Every time I went to leave she would just cry and meltdown. She wanted to leave, but there was nothing I could do. I called the nursing home every week for a year and then stopped,’’ she said.

“I gave them my name and number and told them she had no family and I was all she had, but no one called me. She died alone.’’

Hibbard also had no family, but was watched over by her longtime friend, Jean Johnson, who grew up with Hibbard in Miami.

The two of them worked in real estate together for 40 years.

“It’s funny how you maintain a friendship over the years, and down the road, as her family dropped off and died, she became part of our family,’’ Johnson said.

Hibbard was active in sports and, in her younger years, enjoyed scuba diving, water skiing and camping.

In her later years, she developed memory loss, and had trouble keeping track of her medication.

“At first she hated the home, but she had nowhere to go, and after she moved in and they got her medication adjusted, she was a lot better,’’ said Johnson, who saw her friend the day before she died.

“It was so hot in there and she could barely breathe,’’ Johnson said. “It’s so sad. What a terrible price to pay.’’

Outgoing and social

Jeffrey Nova said his 70-year-old mother, Gail Nova, went to the University of Miami and worked as an X-ray technician until she became ill. She raised him as a single mother and was very outgoing and social.

She had been at the center for about eight years, he said, and he thought that it was a good location because it was across the street from the hospital.

He said he wanted to keep most of his memories of her private as she was a proud woman.

“It’s a memory book, and sometimes you don’t just open it to everyone,’’ Nova said.

Bobby Owens, 84, was born and educated in Georgia, had five children, a stepson, eight grandchildren, 16 great grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren, his family said.

He worked in environmental services at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami for more than 30 years before retiring.

He went into the home about a decade ago following a stroke that affected his ability to speak.

“He loved his job and he loved to dress up, play cards and fishing. It’s terrible that his life had to end the way that it did,’’ said his granddaughter, Tynisha Owens.

Manuel Mario Mendieta, 96, lived in Miami prior to going into the home, records show. A spokeswoman for Caballero Rivero Funeral Home said there would be no services and the family declined comment.

It’s not clear whether an eighth victim, Estella Hendricks, 71, had any family. Records show that she lived in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and possibly Puerto Rico before going into the nursing home.

Miami Herald staff writer David J. Neal and Herald writer Caitlin Ostroff contributed to this story.