Messages to Heaven: Touching tributes to young crash victims

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The tone was almost joyful at Hopeton School, as classmates released red and yellow balloons carrying messages to 6-year-old Johnny Hernandez and his 9-year-old sister, Naely (KFSN)

Mario Hernandez crashed into a canal Sunday night, killing himself, his wife, Blanca, and their children -- Nayeli and Johnny. Their classmates paid tribute Friday.

The tone was almost joyful at Hopeton School, as classmates released red and yellow balloons carrying messages to 6-year-old Johnny Hernandez and his 9-year-old sister, Naely. "The children don't quite understand what's going on but they know they're sending a little piece of themselves to Johnny and Naely and they're pretty excited about it," said Vicky Borges.

Borges was Johnny's teacher, so the poignancy of the messages and their flight toward the heavens is not lost on her. But what his classmates had to say to the first grader was reassuring. "He's a very good friend and I wish he was here right now so I could play soccer with him," said third-grader Daniel Saucedo.

"It gives me a little peace knowing that Johnny was very loved," said Borges.

She says Johnny also left his class a special gift. His Valentine's cards didn't go out last week with the others, so when students got to school Tuesday, the Minions cards were waiting for them as they learned of his death. That's why she wore yellow Friday.

The colors changed, but the scene was much the same at Washington School, where Naely's death had her classmates clinging to each other for support as they joined relatives in tears. Surviving family members said releasing the balloons felt like letting go of the weight of their mourning. Their wounds are still raw, but they say this type of support gives them strength. "We pull together through thick and thin," said Zoe Machuca, who grew up with the Hernandez kids.

"Got to," said her dad, Antonio Machuca, Mario's uncle. "Together."

The family has a memorial planned this weekend in Atwater, but in the meantime, those balloons are headed up to Johnny and Nayeli and they've got a lot of reading to do.
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