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'You don't expect this': Families prepare to bury Texas teens who died in crash after graduation rehearsal

W.B. Ray High School in Corpus Christi will honor Matthew Garcia and Marcello Saldua, both 18, with two seats at Friday's graduation ceremony.

When seniors at W.B. Ray High School in Texas cross the graduation stage Friday afternoon, there will be two empty seats. 

One is for Matthew Garcia, a big brother who was excited to be the first person on his mother’s side of the family to graduate from high school, according to his aunt. 

The second is for Marcello Saldua, a teen described as a hard worker who “always had a smile.”

The two 18-year-olds died Tuesday in a rollover crash after they left their graduation rehearsal at American Bank Center in Corpus Christi. They were headed back to school.

For their loved ones, graduation day, a milestone of triumph and joy, has turned into a moment of sorrow. 

“You don’t expect this. We were expecting to celebrate a graduation. And now we’re burying him,” Maribel Duran, Garcia’s aunt, said.

The crash

Four males were in a white two-door vehicle that crashed in the 2300 block of North Port Avenue around 11:25 a.m. Tuesday. Officers with the Corpus Christi Police Department found the car rolled over on its roof.

Garcia and Saldua were killed in the wreck. Two other males were hospitalized after the accident. Their names and conditions were unknown Friday.

Speed and racing are believed to be contributing factors in the one-vehicle crash, Senior Officer Travis Pace said.

The incident remains under investigation.

Garcia and Saldua: Close friends who attended elementary school together

Garcia was excited for graduation and had plans to join the military after high school, his aunt Maribel Duran told NBC News.

She described him as a bubbly, kind and humble teen who looked after his little brother and two younger sisters.

“He was always like, ‘I’m the big brother, I’m going to take care of you,’” Duran told NBC News. “He made sure nobody messed with his brother and sisters.”

Image: Matthew Garcia
Matthew Garcia.Courtesy Maribel Duran

Duran said that Garcia would often read to his blind grandfather, worked as a busboy at a local restaurant to help pay the bills, and even offered to donate a kidney to his cousin.

“I have a special needs child, and even as a child he was like, just 10 years old, he’d always say, ‘If you ever need a kidney, I’m going to give you one,’” Duran said.

“My sister was a teenage mom. He was like, ‘I wanna show my mom I’m proud that she had me.’ In his mind he knew what he had to do in life,” Duran said. “We all were very proud of him.” 

Saldua was a “funny” teen with a “good vibe,” his cousin Faith Galvan said to the Corpus Christi Cronica, a local newspaper.

She said that Saldua and Garcia were close friends and went to elementary school together, excited to be graduating. 

“Everyone wanted to be around him,” she said.

“Marcello couldn’t believe he was going to graduate and was about to walk the stage,” she added. 

Schoolmate Jeremiah Curiel remembered Saldua as person who “always had a smile.”

“His laugh was very brightening and it’s something I’m going to miss the most about him. He was always happy, he always celebrated our accomplishments, he was never the jealous or hater type, he always wanted to see his friends succeed,” Curiel said.

He described him as a hard worker and “hustler.”

“He was always finding a way to get what he needed. But what we loved most about him was that he was caring and is someone who you can count on to be there for you no matter what,” Curiel said.

A candlelight vigil was held Thursday at Heritage Park to honor the students. Several benefits will take place this weekend to help the families of the victims.

For the teens' families, the graduation ceremony comes with a heavy heart.

Duran was moved to hear the school will honor the students with the two seats at the 2 p.m. ceremony.

“I told my sister, ‘You know what, he’s not forgotten. They’re going to have him there. They’re going to represent him," Duran said.

"She held on to his cap and gown and said, ‘I just want my baby back.’”