Tecumseh family carries on with grit and fortitude after a hard run of tragedy

The Aquilar family of Tecumseh is shown before multiple tragedies struck in the last three years. Seated: Manuel and Donna Aguilar, center, with their seven children, from left, April Rounds, Holly Jacobs and Camille Kendrick. Standing: Tony Aguilar, Bree Aguilar, Josh Aguilar and Vera Stecher. The Aguilars' home was destroyed in the 2017 flood. Manuel suffered a stroke in 2018; the next year, Donna was diagnosed with rectal cancer and their daughter Bree died of cervical cancer. Their son Tony died June 5 in a crash near Tecumseh.

Tony Aquilar has been living in Kansas City recently, where he worked at Lowe's, but he made frequent trips to Ozark County to spend time with his son, Brent, 12, who lives with Tony's parents, Manuel and Donna Aguilar, in their home near Dawt.

When their 37-year-old son Tony died June 5 in a car crash on Highway 160, Tecumseh residents Manuel and Donna Aguilar were already dealing with more heartache and challenges than many families face in a lifetime.

Longtime residents of Kansas City, Kansas, where they had raised their seven children to adulthood, in 2000 they had bought a home and 7 acres on James Lane northeast of Dawt alongside the North Fork of the White River, planning to retire there. For the next few years the riverside home was their cherished summer getaway, and in 2015, they moved to Ozark County permanently, bringing with them their grandson Brent, whom they were raising. Their son Anthony, nicknamed Tony, came too. Tony was Brent’s dad.  

They enjoyed their life on the river. But on the night of April 29, 2017, their modular home and everything in it washed away in the historic flood that ravaged much of Ozark County, destroying several other homes along the river and washing away two major highway bridges. With their grandson Brent, son Tony and their visiting daughter Bree and her family, the Aguilars fled to their nearby barn that stood on ground a little higher than the house. From there they watched as the raging floodwaters destroyed their home.

Like other riverside residents, they had no flood insurance, because Ozark County does not participate in the federal flood insurance program. And, like other riverside residents, they lost almost everything. “You just don’t realize the things you lose when something like that happens,” their daughter, Vera Stecher, told the Times last week. “Driver’s licenses, all the documents, baby albums, pictures … everything.”

The Aguilars returned to Kansas City and lived there with Bree and Krysie, her significant other, and the couple’s three adopted children while they tried to pull their lives together and plan their return to Ozark County.

Eight months later, at Christmastime, Donna slipped on the kitchen floor and broke her arm. Two months after that, in February 2018, Bree was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Manuel and Donna traveled back and forth between a borrowed fifth-wheel RV parked on their land in Ozark County and Kansas City, where they helped care for Bree and her three little children, then age 9, 7 and 4.

They were back here in Ozark County on Donna’s 60th birthday in June 2018, working on rebuilding their home, when Manuel suffered a stroke. The Aguilars’ daughter Vera said her dad was rushed to an area hospital, where medical personnel didn’t seem to take Manuel’s condition seriously enough to suit his worried loved ones. “We have six nurses in our family,” Vera said, “so they weren’t going to fool around.”

The family hurriedly drove Manuel to St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, where he was diagnosed with a 95 percent carotid blockage and underwent surgery. He recovered quickly, intent on getting their Ozark County house rebuilt, and in the fall of 2018, they moved back into their home on James Lane.

For a while, things went relatively well for the Aguilars, but then Bree’s condition worsened in September 2019, and they temporarily moved back to Kansas City to help her. While they were there, Brent, who was then 12 and has special needs, had appendicitis and had surgery. And the next month, while Bree was hospitalized for treatment of her cancer in October, Donna was diagnosed with rectal cancer. She delayed chemo treatments so she could continue to help Bree and her children.

Then, on Nov. 6, the unimaginable happened. Their beloved daughter Bree died at age 39.

The brokenhearted family gathered to mourn their daughter, sister, mother, wife and aunt – while also worriedly contemplating what lay ahead for Donna. The next month, in December, Manuel’s sister-in-law died, and the family gathered again to mourn the passing of “Aunt Kim.”

The death came just as Donna was having to get nine teeth pulled because an infection around the teeth meant she wouldn’t be able to get a port so her chemotherapy treatments could be administered.

Finally, in late February, after six weeks of chemo, the couple, with Brent, returned to their newly rebuilt home on the river, where they were grateful for a peaceful respite from all they had been through in the past three years.

In May, the family celebrated some long-overdue good news. Donna was deemed to be cancer free. It looked like maybe their luck had finally turned. They continued to homeschool their grandson Brent while his dad, Antonio, nicknamed Tony, worked in Kansas City but came to Ozark County often to spend time with Brent and enjoy the outdoors here.

Then, on Friday evening, June 5, Tony wanted to have a campfire, Vera said. He told his parents he was going to drive into Gainesville to get some things, even though they assured him they already had everything needed. “He wanted to take Brent with him, but thank God my mother said no,” Vera said.

Awhile later, the Aguilars got a call from Ozarks Medical Center in West Plains saying Tony had been brought there after a car crash.

The Missouri State Highway Patrol’s online crash report says the single-vehicle accident occurred at 8:25 p.m., when Tony’s Chevrolet Blazer, westbound on Highway 160 near Hardenville, ran off the right side of the road, returned to the roadway and ran off the left side, where it struck a driveway, “became airborne and overturned.”

Tony had only owned the used vehicle a couple of days, Vera said. Driving unbelted, with the windows down, he was ejected in the crash, she said.

Manuel and Donna were outside when the Air Evac helicopter flew over their home. As most Ozark Countians do, they wondered where the medivac chopper was going and who it was picking up.

“Tony was alive when the paramedics arrived,” Vera said. “He had a pulse and was breathing. But before [Air Evac] arrived, he coded, and they started CPR.” Because it’s nearly impossible to continue CPR while airborne in the helicopter, Tony was transported to OMC by Ozark County Ambulance, where he was pronounced dead by an ER doctor at 9:37 p.m.

The Aguilars’ daughter Holly Jacobs, a nurse practitioner, was with her parents at their home that evening. She accompanied them to OMC and went in first to ID Tony’s body, wanting to shield Manuel and Donna from that grim task. When she saw that he wasn’t badly disfigured, she brought them in. The family also brought Brent in a little later, “so he could understand what had happened,” Vera said.  

Now, once again, this family finds itself grieving another tragic loss.

Hoping to help her parents with some of the expenses related to Tony’s final arrangements – and also to help with bills from Bree’s final arrangements and Donna’s medical treatments – Vera has started a fundraiser with a $3,500 goal.

“We are not ones to ask for help,” she told the Times. “With all they’ve been through, my parents never asked for help. But it’s been so much to deal with, all of it. And people have asked how they can help.”

She hopes to use the money to buy small memorial headstones for Tony and Bree to place on their parents’ property – and to help pay for the celebration of his life the family plans to host in July in Kansas City. And also, “Mom’s still trying to get her teeth fixed after having nine of them pulled in February, so I’d like for her to able to save her money for that purpose, rather than having to pay for all of these other unexpected expenses,” she said. 

She launched “Vera’s Family Fundraiser” on Facebook last Wednesday, and at press time Tuesday, a little more than $1,500 had been donated by about 30 friends, relatives and neighbors. Donations, Vera said, “are greatly appreciated” but “prayers are also as greatly appreciated as money!” Find the link to fundraiser on the Ozark County Times Facebook page.

See Antonio Angelo Aguilar Jr.’s obituary on page 8.

Ozark County Times

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