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Brothers' bond: Buford man aims to carry on sibling's legacy

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips
 Quintin Alvarez holds photos of his brother Daniel and his niece and nephews in his hands. Quintin and his family have established the Daniel Alvarez Memorial Fund in hopes of raising enough money to build a philanthropic center after his brother, his sister-in-law, twin boys and infant girl were killed en route to Georgia from a religious celebration when their car flipped into a rain-swollen ditch in North Carolina two months ago. 

Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips Quintin Alvarez holds photos of his brother Daniel and his niece and nephews in his hands. Quintin and his family have established the Daniel Alvarez Memorial Fund in hopes of raising enough money to build a philanthropic center after his brother, his sister-in-law, twin boys and infant girl were killed en route to Georgia from a religious celebration when their car flipped into a rain-swollen ditch in North Carolina two months ago. 

BUFORD — There is a man in Buford who keeps a box in his brain. That’s how he thinks of the pain, a locked little box, a dangerous collectible on his mental shelf. One day he might open the box and rift through its contents — the images of death, the upside-down Jeep Cherokee, an entire household torn from his life — but now is not that time. There’s more immediate business at hand.

Quintin Alvarez, 34, a tall, brawny father of three who works security for an Atlanta department store, is learning to cope with the void. He and his brother were partners in many things, a Yin and Yang ready to take on the world, to help legions of troubled souls. But that symmetry is gone.

How To Assist

• Tax-deductible donations to the Beulah Foundation should denote “Daniel Alvarez Memorial Fund”

Mail checks to:

Beulah Foundation, P.O. Box 9883, Asheville, NC 28815

• For more information, or to make an online contribution, visit

www.beulahfoundation.org

• The Foundation asks that no cash be sent in the mail.

Quintin’s brother, Daniel, 27, died two months ago, alongside his wife and three young children, en route to Gwinnett from a religious retreat on the North Carolina shore. Quintin tried to save his brother’s family but was a couple minutes too late.

So Quintin goes it alone. He’s in the wake of a catastrophe that would mute someone less focused on sowing value from these five lives, snatched like candle flames in a hurricane.

“Some people take death hard. Drinking, sleeping in a dark house,” says Quintin, whose warm laugh frequently interrupts his New York dialect. “I’m trying to handle this situation. That’s my focus. I don’t want to go to a dark place.”

• • •

Quintin likes to think of his brother’s mentoring nature. Not the box, not the images. The good times come to him in vignettes.

He fills with such elation in recalling his brother, you’d think he might burst out of his black suit, might stand in his cozy living room and wave his arms enough to fan out the ubiquitous, cinnamon-scented candles.

But, then again, he’s too focused for antics like that.

• • •

The funeral service at Hamilton Mill Memorial Chapel and Gardens seemed as unthinkable as it was unfair.

A family eulogized and buried, en masse. The twins lay together, their father holding his baby daughter, their mother cremated at the request of her family.

Daniel’s co-workers from Home Depot spoke of him in glowing terms:

“He was the light of the store ...”

“I’ve never met anyone like Daniel ...”

“He walked with God ...”

And: “It was as if he had two angels around him.”

Kirk Jackson, Beulah Foundation vice chairman, met Daniel when he was 15, and recognized him as a natural optimist who refused to take short cuts. The foundation was — is — dear to the Alvarez brothers.

“(Daniel) had reached across the boundaries and lines that many people put up,” Jackson says. “To lose a whole household, for most of us, is inconceivable. It was a day that we’ll never forget.”

• • •

Understanding the brothers’ bond requires knowing this: They were born and raised in the Bronx.

The only sons of Honduran immigrants, their father worked as a seaman, their mother in the medical field. The Edenwald Projects — a vast forest of bricky monoliths, the largest housing development in the Bronx — played host to the brothers’ formative years. Leaving their Grenada Place apartment and getting to school, that oasis of knowledge and girls, meant ducking bullies. The occasional scrap was inevitable. Together the brothers developed street savvy, and a deep-rooted sympathy for those in dire straits.

Among the great push of New York City, Daniel found solace in classical music. At 10, he bedazzled his family when he taught himself to play violin. Boys would beckon Daniel to join pick-up basketball games, but sometimes he was too busy, coaxing Beethoven from the instrument.

Five years later, Daniel and his brother, never religious before, had an epiphany while watching a Bible series on the History Channel. Soon they considered themselves adherents to the Old Testament and the Laws of Moses, and also Christ.

High on curiosity, Daniel would sit down next to his brother and discuss the Bible, drafting the architecture of his later purpose.

Quintin smiles, recalling those conferences: “That’s when he started blossoming as the person he was.”

• • •

For no particular reason, the brothers uprooted to Miami a few years ago on a “tryout” basis. Daniel met his wife, Natalie Owens, a fellow Barnes and Noble employee, and their marriage was expedient. He got a job at Home Depot for extra income.

As families, they agreed to move northward three years ago. Daniel was transferred to a Home Depot on Shackleford Road in Duluth, where his jack-of-all-trades attitude lent him to the overnight shipping and receiving department one day, and maybe gardening the next. His wife found work at Neiman Marcus. Like hundreds of thousands before them, the Alvarez brothers had migrated to Gwinnett for the quality-of-life versus cost-of-living ratio, for the schools, for the winters that neither bit like New York’s, nor smothered like Miami’s.

It would be home, the final destination Daniel never reached.

• • •

The Alvarez families had spent a week together on the camel-colored sands and wispy dune grasses of The Outer Banks, N.C. They rented a house to observe the Feast of the Tabernacles, a Thanksgiving-like acknowledgment of the fall harvest and God’s provisions.

The barbecues, swims and Biblical studies were dampened only the threat of Tropical Storm Nicole, a weather system whose remnants dumped rain on the East Coast after thumping Jamaica. They headed home Sept. 30 despite the rain, a caravan of three.

• • •

Bagged in Quintin’s closet are the sympathy cards. About 70 of them. They came in a torrent, from as far as California. From co-workers, from people who live near the accident scene, from strangers. Decimation is a concept whose reach is long.

“A lot of things happen on a daily basis — murder, death, kill, steal, things of that nature,” Quintin says. “But you rarely hear of that happening to a whole family. It’s just hard ... it’s just hard.”

• • •

About noon, near the town of Creswell, N.C., Quintin exited U.S. Highway 64 in his Ford Expedition for a bathroom break. Daniel, driving his 2003 Jeep Cherokee, and their cousin drove ahead.

About 10 minutes later, the cousin called Quintin with horrifying news: Daniel’s Jeep had hydroplaned, skidded off the shoulder, flipped and landed in a rain-swollen ditch, all five people trapped. The Jeep lay on its roof, water gushing in the cabin. Nobody could pry the doors open.

Quintin barreled to the scene and plunged in the cold, chest-deep water. That’s about all he remembers until he finally got his fingers around the driver’s door and jerked it open. He swam blindly into the vehicle, grabbing for seat-belt latches and tricky car-seat fasteners, until mother, father and children were pulled unconscious to the highway shoulder.

North Carolina Sate Highway Patrol troopers descended. The chaos was numbing. In a rural area, at the fault lines of multiple jurisdictions, the victims were transported to two different hospitals. That left Quintin in a quandary. He opted to follow his brother.

Daniel, Natalie, both 27, and their daughter, Ariela, 1, were pronounced dead at Washington County Hospital, near a river town called Plymouth. Zecharia, 3, died at a nearby children’s hospital, while his twin, Ezekiel, kept fighting.

There’s an irony in who lasted longest. Ezekiel means “God Will Strengthen” and the child was strong, bearing the markings, even in infancy, of a leader. But the water was just too much.

Medics revived Ezekiel’s heart but not his brain function. He was transferred to a larger hospital in Greenville. He lived one more day.

Troopers ruled the deaths drownings.

• • •

Quintin says his niece and nephews, though toddlers, had begun to mold distinct personalities. Ezekiel was the eldest boy by a couple minutes, and he knew it. They both were shepherds of their sassy little sister.

“Ariela, she was the boss,” Quintin says. “But (the brothers) would take care of her. If she was crying, they would try to find out why, to make sure she’s OK.”

• • •

Quintin usually likes road trips, to drink in the variations of America’s landscape. But the eight-hour drive to Gwinnett from North Carolina was too much thinking time, the wounds too fresh.

And then there was Daniel’s apartment. The tidy, two-bedroom on Sweetwater Road had teemed with family sounds for two years, but now sat heavy with relics. The surviving family approached the issue together. Most things went to the Salvation Army.

These things did not:

A Shield of David pencil-drawn by Daniel at age 15; old tape recordings he’d made of himself, riffing on Beethoven; his violin.

• • •

The brothers had a plan. They vested their energies in the Beulah Foundation, an Asheville-based, non-denominational charity that serves wayward young people, nonviolent ex-offenders and addicts.

The brothers served on the Beulah Foundation advisory board. As the heart, Daniel oversaw mentoring, while his brother brought his brawn and security acumen to the table. They hoped to springboard the initiative to a nation-wide presence.

For now, foundation leaders are pulling together grants and donations for a counseling center in Asheville that will oblige Daniel’s all-inclusive nature. A respite for those in dire straits.

Plans call for a wing of the center to be named in Daniel’s honor. Jackson, the vice chairman, said the foundation is eying a 30-acre plot where they hope to start building in the next eight months, pending funding.

A vision of the center keeps Quintin from the box, for now. He’s taken his brother’s legacy on his shoulders, while tying up the loose ends on Earth. He believes Daniel is applauding him.

“The healing process takes a long time,” Quintin says. “You’re never going to forget. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional. We’re not going to choose to suffer.”