After a family dinner of chicken mole, Gustavo Puga stood in the kitchen with his wife, Rosemary, when the roar -- "really bad, louder than a train" -- first registered.
He scooped up their sleeping 3-year-old daughter, Noelia, from a nearby recliner and squeezed both her and Rosemary close.
"I looked over my shoulder and the tornado already was on us," Puga said. "I hung on to them as hard as I could. I looked at them and that was it -- next thing I knew, I was in the tree with my daughter and wife."
The force of the March 28 tornado swept all three into the thick limbs of a crooked cottonwood behind their modular home by the railroad tracks on Holly's south side.
Rosemary, 29, died hours later at a Colorado Springs hospital -- the only immediate fatality of the twister that injured eight and destroyed 48 homes.
Puga and Noelia survived.
The 28-year-old over-the-road trucker, who suffered a cracked scapula, ribs, vertebrae and toes, spoke for the first time Monday about the tornado that ripped through this tiny southeast Colorado town near the Kansas border.
Puga said he remembered nothing of being swept away by the swirling wind, and suspects he may have lost consciousness until sometime after he came to rest in the tree.
By then, the air had gone still.
"I remember being in the tree and hearing my daughter crying," Puga said. "I shook my wife to see if she was alive and got no answer. I must've climbed out of the tree -- I don't really remember. Then I began yelling for help."
Neighbors arrived and shined flashlights into the tree. Rosemary was lodged awkwardly among the branches, at least 15 feet above the ground, with Noelia stuck slightly below her.
Rescuers described Rosemary as being at least partially conscious, though bleeding and obviously injured badly. Noelia, cut and bruised, was otherwise unhurt as one neighbor handed her out of the tree to another neighbor.
Puga's own injuries began to sink in. The pain in his back left him unable to help emergency workers.
"I kept telling them to get my wife," he recalled. "They were telling me to go over to an ambulance. I said, 'Don't worry about me, get my wife out of the tree.' I don't know how long it took. They ended up just taking me over to the ambulance."
He said he rode in an ambulance with Noelia, while emergency workers sped Rosemary away toward Lamar in another. She was airlifted to Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, where she underwent four hours of surgery.
Rosemary Rosales Puga died early March 29.
Once the tornado struck, Puga never spoke with his wife again.
"Seeing your wife go that way, being in your arms one minute, then plucked into a tree the next -- it's hard," he said. "It's something I won't forget overnight, or a week or a month from now. It's going to take a while."
The couple's son, 7-year-old Gustavo Jr., had been staying with Puga's mother about a block away and wasn't injured.
For the immediate future, Puga and his children will move in with his mother, whose three-bedroom home wasn't seriously damaged.
"I've got to face being here -- I can't run away from the whole thing," Puga said. "I can't move away and just try to forget that this ever happened."
Puga started dating the woman who would become his common-law wife when he was 15 and saw Rosemary Rosales at a dance in nearby Lamar.
"She was so beautiful," he recalled.
They became a couple and survived living apart for about a year when Puga moved to Greeley and Rosemary's family lived in Texas. They got back together when he was 19 and she was 20.
Rosemary worked as a housekeeper at a hospital in Syracuse, Kan., just across the state line. But she continued to pursue her GED "so she could do more for herself," Puga said.
Puga, who drives for a trucking company out of Garden City, Kan., said he'd been planning to purchase his own rig.
He'd put a down payment on a truck that he was to pick up in Gulfport, Miss., but when the transaction went sour he took back his money and returned to Holly. That money -- $8,000 in cash -- appeared to have been swept away by the tornado until a relative found it amid the home's wreckage.
"Eventually," Puga said, "I'm going to try it again."
He said that even the miracle of Noelia's survival can't completely compensate for what the tornado literally wrenched from his grasp.
"I tried holding on to both as best I could," Puga said. "I'm glad my daughter's good. I just wish I had my wife back, too."
(© 2007 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. )
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