by John Tedesco
EXPRESS-NEWS COASTAL BEND BUREAU
KINGSVILLE – Ronchester Santiago, a 1996 graduate of H.M. King High School, had only two months left in his Navy stint.
That irony wasn’t lost on the members of Santiago’s family. He was one of three Texans believed killed in the blast that ripped a hole in the USS Cole.
The explosion also claimed the lives of as many 14 other sailors and injured 38.
The 22-year-old petty officer had planned to attend the University of Texas and major in electrical engineering.
His father, Rogelio, was going to take him on a vacation to the Philippines, their ancestral homeland.
“His life was cut short,” Rogelio Santiago said at his Kingsville home. “We had a lot of dreams for him.”
Santiago’s parents said they had assumed the worst because their son was assigned to the ship’s mess hall as a management specialist.
“That’s where the explosion hit,” said his mother, Simeona.
As the parents spent the day Friday talking to reporters and waiting for official word on their son’s fate, friends called and visited the modest, one-story house where Santiago lived in a small subdivision.
Pictures of the family, including a large framed photo of Santiago in his Navy uniform, covered a small desk in the living room.
“I want to maintain a little hope that some way, somehow, somewhere in that ship, he is OK,” said Santiago’s father, a retired Navy veteran.
But he knew the chances of that were slim.
“Thinking of the negative, I gave up hope because of the location of the explosion,” he said.
In high school, Santiago was among 69 students who joined the school’s first ROTC class that formed in 1993, said 1st Sgt. Ron Longoria, an instructor in the program. His art teacher, Jane Lyon, remembered Santiago as a quiet but friendly student. A skinny freshman, Santiago quickly matured and carried himself well in a ROTC uniform.
“We hate losing any of our students here, because we’re a family and we’re very tight-knit,” Lyon said.
At the high school, flags flew at half-staff for Santiago and the other victims, and a moment of silence was scheduled before the evening football game against the Alice Coyotes.
In his spare time, Santiago liked to go hunting with his father – more for the company than the thrill of the hunt. An animal lover, Santiago intentionally missed every shot and blamed it on a crooked gun barrel, his father said.
After graduating, Santiago joined the Navy. He originally was assigned to the USS Constitution, the Navy’s oldest commissioned warship, where he completed a petty officer indoctrination course Dec. 14.
He was assigned to the USS Cole earlier this year, his parents said, and worked in the mess hall.
He last spoke by phone with his parents several weeks ago while his ship was docked in Barcelona, Spain. He told his father he was excited about going to the Middle East. He told his mother he would buy her a vase in Spain.
“That was the last time we heard from him,” his mother said.
Santiago was born in Kingsville and never had been to the Philippines. To prepare for their upcoming vacation, Rogelio Santiago bought a fishing boat for the trip and named it the Ronnie II after his son.
“I’m going to miss him a lot,” his father said. “I had a lot of plans and a lot of dreams for that boy.”
Sailors aboard the USS Constitution, a site for tourists and special Navy ceremonies, Friday remembered their former shipmate. Nicknamed “Chester,” Santiago left the Constitution in January after spending four years stationed there.
Senior Chief Mark Johnson said Santiago was very well liked among the 60 active crewmembers aboard the Constitution.
Johnson said plans had been on tap for a celebration of the Navy’s 225th anniversary at the Constitution, docked in Boston, but those ceremonies would be toned down and closed to the media. A moment of silence is to be held for Santiago and the others who died aboard the Cole.
jtedesco @ express-news.net
The Associated Press contributed to this report.