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September 22, 2004

Flood swept away gentle man who overcame deafness

From: Pittsburgh Post Gazette, PA - Sep 22, 2004

Wednesday, September 22, 2004
By Joe Fahy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

To his foster mother in Bellevue, Dennis Santiago was a gentle, hardworking man who often dropped by to help around her house and play with her small black-and-white dog, Toby.

To his mother, brothers and sisters in Erie, he was a family-oriented person who overcame deafness and a heart defect to live independently.

Yesterday, they grieved together after authorities identified Santiago as the man whose body was found Monday under the Thornburg Bridge in Crafton.

Two people found Santiago, 35, face down on the shore of Chartiers Creek about 7:30 p.m., the Allegheny County coroner's office said. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Authorities had feared that Santiago was the man swept away early Saturday in flood-swollen Chartiers Creek in Carnegie. Horrified rescue workers looked on as the man, who had screamed for help as he clung to a tree, fell and was swept downstream.

Santiago was the only reported fatality from widespread weekend flooding in Allegheny County that damaged more than 2,500 homes.

"I feel like I have a big hole in my heart," Santiago's mother, Gloria Cruz, said yesterday. "He was the most beautiful son. Now that he's gone, I don't know how I'll handle it."

"It's shocking," said his sister, Gloria Lozada. "I don't understand how, of all the people affected by this flood, he was the one who died."

His brother, Luis Maldonado, called him a kind person who stayed in touch by e-mail, loved animals and was very independent, "the type of person who didn't like burdening anyone with any problems or issues he might have."

Cindy Germaine, his foster mother for the past two decades, echoed that view.

"He would never, in 20 years, ask me for anything," she said. At the same time, "there was nothing I could ask of him that he wouldn't do for me," she said.

Although he lived in Carnegie, he dropped by her home in Bellevue several times a week. He had been busy there in recent weeks, meticulously painting the dark red-and-white exterior, she said.

He had been laid off from his job at a microfilm company on the South Side for about a year, she said, but was determined to go back to work.

Santiago, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, has been deaf since childhood. He had surgery at age 6 to repair defects to two valves in his heart, his family said.

Germaine met him when he was 15 and a student at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. She worked with deaf and hearing-impaired students in the Pittsburgh schools and helped care for children at her home. With his family in Erie, he needed a place to stay on weekends.

She said he was the first of 17 foster children she cared for, "and he was like a big brother to the others."

Santiago graduated from the school in 1988, she said, then attended Connelley Technical Institute. He left for a maintenance job at the School for the Deaf, then attended the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., in 1990-91.

After that, he worked in a series of jobs, including at a toy store and country club, communicating by sign language, reading lips or writing. He also was a strong swimmer and worked out regularly.

Jason Stowell, a manager at Club Julian 24 Hour Fitness in the North Hills, said yesterday that Santiago was "an inspiration to a lot of people around here."

Stowell, who once was Santiago's personal trainer, said Santiago never let himself be limited by his disability.

"He was always happy, always active," Stowell said.

As the flood waters were rising Friday afternoon, Santiago e-mailed his girlfriend, telling her he planned to go to the gym and then see a friend. She warned him to be careful of the rain.

Stowell said Santiago worked out at the fitness center Friday and left about 8:15 p.m.

After she watched news accounts Saturday of a deaf man clinging to a tree in Carnegie and was unable to contact her foster son, Germaine called police to say she might know who the missing man was.

Besides his mother, foster mother, brother and sister, Santiago is survived by his father, Luis Santiago; sisters Denise Ocasio, D'Asia Santiago and Angela Santiago; brothers Rodney Santiago and Luis Santiago Jr.; and stepfather Miguel Santiago, all of Erie.

Funeral arrangements, by William Slater II Funeral Service on Greentree Road, were incomplete.

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