An American tragedy contract did not cover


CLINTONVILLE, Wis. - It was a chilly, dreary Friday in mid-February in rural Wisconsin, but they came anyway, many with canes and walkers. Several propelled themselves in wheelchairs to places in front of the first pew.

The crowd of 75, mostly nursing home residents and workers, had gathered at St. Martin's Church to say goodbye to three Micronesians who died Ash Wednesday morning when a fire swept through their rented bungalow in this town 40 miles west of Green Bay.

In life, Inos Makaya, 23, Bermin Samson, 24, and Welber Rafail, 21, were known for their exuberance.

"They had a zest for living," said the Rev. Vilas Mazemke, who presided at the service. "These young men didn't get everything done."

In death, they would become a bureaucratic problem. They hadn't worked at Greentree Health and Rehabilitation Center long enough to qualify for a death benefit that would have sent their bodies home.

And the broker who'd brought them to America - Cathy Massey, president of J/C Placement Services of Dallas, Ga. - said she wasn't responsible for transporting remains. "It's not in the contract," she said.

Massey attended the memorial service. Outside the boarded-up house where the three men died, she took pictures for her scrapbook. Later, back home in Georgia, she would speak of how she crossed the police lines and peeked inside the burned-out bungalow. She said she saw a handprint made by one of the men as he edged along the wall in a desperate attempt to escape the fire.

But that's where her involvement ended.

At the service, mourners spoke fondly of the three young men who died.

"I've been here 15 years and I've never seen people have such an impact in so short a time," said Linda Remington, a supervisor at Greentree, where the men had worked since mid- November.

From her wheelchair, using a microphone, Greentree resident Diane Groth talked about the men's last day on the job.

"Inos would always come up to me and give me his headphones so I could hear the CD he was listening to," she said. "The last day he worked, he came down the hall, saw me and reached down and gave me a kiss on the cheek."

Mourners spoke of the men's affection for their families.

Nicki Merow, whose memorial poem was read at the service, recalled how Rafail had promised his mother that he would return to Micronesia by his 23rd birthday.

"His parents just had another child, and he was supposed to pick out the name," Merow said. Days before his death, Rafail had picked the name Adrian for his new brother.

"They were homesick for the fishing and swimming back home," Remington said.

But it took weeks before the men's remains were finally returned. The Red Cross eventually picked up the bill that the "body broker" wouldn't.

Nearly a month later and an ocean away, the family and friends of Wilber Rafail gathered in the jungle village of Enipein on the island of Pohnpei to bid him farewell.

Mourners buried Rafail in a white casket covered in flowers, in a family plot in a patch of dirt two yards from the front door of the plywood house where he grew up.

In a nearby hut, relatives swigged sakau, a strong drink made from a locally grown pepper root. Two cousins playing guitars strummed a song they wrote the day a stranger from the Micronesian government had called to say that Rafail had died.

"When they first left us we were sad, but that feeling does not compare to the grief we feel now," they sang in Pohnpeian.

Relatives had waited helplessly for news, sorting through rumors that trickled in via overseas phone calls and local gossip.

"We didn't know what we could do," said cousin Nora Salmon.

When Rafail had boarded a plane to the United States, he was looking for a second chance, she said. He was bright and funny, she said, and she misses his jokes.

Sometimes, when he was happy, he sang love songs, or Queen's "I Want to Break Free."

But he'd hung out with friends too often, and dropped out of high school as a junior.

"He wanted to go to the U.S.," Salmon said. "Because he didn't graduate high school, he wanted to go to further his education and find a job."

Mourners said they had no idea what life was like for Rafail in Wisconsin. He had never spoken of it in his calls home.

"I heard it is cold," said cousin Francisco Hellan. "And I cannot imagine anything in the cold."

During Rafail's last phone call home, about a month before he died, he told his mother that he would be sending gifts when he got his next paycheck, said John Waltu, an uncle.

The body finally came, the gifts never did.

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