From left to right: Joseph Rivera, Hariff Mohammed and Isaac Baez. (photo: Miguel Dejesus)

Only at times when a person is between life and death can he perhaps know the maximum strength and courage of the human being, grasping for the last breath in a struggle for survival.


Hurricane Maria surprised Joseph Rivera, Haniff Mohammed and Isaac Baez on Wednesday morning at their residence in Villa Calma in the Ingenio neighborhood in Toa Baja.


"We saw when our roofs and the roofs of other people were gone. The houses also flew," said Rivera, 22, of Carolina.


Rivera and Mohammed, who are a couple, and their friend Isaac lived together in their house. Despite the threat of the hurricane, they decided to stay in the home. They trusted that the house would withstand the blast of Maria. But at dawn, when the roof began to sag, the three left the residence.


An 85-year-old neighbor sheltered them on the second floor of a home, from where they saw Maria's strong bursts gradually rip out the roof of their home.


At around noon on Wednesday, the streets of the Ingenio neighborhood began to flood with a pace that did not allow the residents to leave their residences and streets. In a matter of minutes, the three young people reported, the streets looked like rivers and the water reached unprecedented levels.

"The water began to rise, did not give us time to take the car, clothes – absolutely nothing – it looked like a tsunami. You saw the waves," said Baez, 27, a native of Catano. "We had to save our lives by jumping to other houses, with an 85-year-old woman in our arms, from ceiling to ceiling," Rivera added.

In the midst of the disaster, calls to 911 were unsuccessful. According to Rivera, when they managed to connect the call, they were informed that rescuers would not leave in the middle of the hurricane to perform rescue work. Neighbors in the same neighborhood rescued the old woman using a kayak.

"There, we managed to swim to another house, another roof," continued Rivera. "We prayed in one of the houses where we hopped because we thought we were going to die."

Save yourself swimming

While swimming, they claim to have seen alligators pass by, also dragged by the current. Other animals like horses, dogs and cats were fighting for their lives. On more than one occasion, the three young men thought they would be carried away by the current and would die.

"We said goodbye twice, because twice we were about to die," said Mohammed, 22 and a native of Corozal. Exhausted, they managed to get to the house of a neighbor whose residence had not been reached by the high levels of the flood, and there they were refugees until Thursday.

"Thanks to him, we had that day. The other day, we had to swim out again," Rivera said. However, they say that not everyone there ran with the same fate.

"The people who managed to leave Ingenio were thanks to other people who had a little boat," said Rivera.

A destroyed village

According to the trio, of the approximately 80 houses in the area, about 50 were a total loss. "Up to the second floor came the water,” Rivera said.

"Mine was completely flooded, I have no belongings. Right now we have what we have,” Mohammed explained. At the time, he related how they saw his things leave the roof of the residence – his mother's property – dragged by the waters. So far, there are no official numbers for the damage in that area.

"Our three cars are sunk, we do not have clothes, we have nothing," said Baez. Meanwhile, he explained that before the initial winds of the hurricane, the three had saved part of their clothes and belongings in the vehicles, thinking that they would be sheltered inside.

According to the mayor of Toa Baja, Bernardo "Betito" Marquez, eight people died in different areas of the municipality. The number is different from the information offered by Public Security Secretary Hector M. Pesquera, who indicated that only two deaths were reported in Toa Baja.

About 4,000 people were rescued in this municipality, according to Marquez, due to the severe floods that affected different neighborhoods, including Levittown, provoked by the floodgates of the Lake La Plata dam. This caused an overflow of rivers and lakes.

Live to tell

At 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, the three young men arrived at Bayamon. Until that time, none of them had had any communication with their families. On the way to the residence of Rivera's mother in Carolina, Mohammed managed to make a call to his mother.

"We are fine.” The words that any mother would want to hear from a son whose life was in danger were the first words Mohammed gave by phone.

When arriving at the Los Riveras section of the Santa Cruz neighborhood in Carolina, the mother of Joseph, Sheila Marquez, received her son in tears.

"Horrible, the worst experience.” That's how the three guys described the tragedy. They are grateful to be alive to tell their story. "We risked our lives, we almost died, and thanks to God, we are alive," Rivera said.