EDINBURG — The auditorium here inside the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance was mostly bare save for a few local dignitaries and members of the general public.

On stage sat a few empty chairs that would soon be filled by Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez, DHR Health Chairman Dr. Carlos Cardenas, Yvette Correa from the COVID-19 Memorial Task Force and representatives of various faiths in the Rio Grande Valley.

They gathered Monday morning to commemorate the lives lost to COVID-19 on the two-year anniversary of the first confirmed case of the coronavirus in the county. The interdenominational prayer service marked the first official COVID-19 Memorial Day in Hidalgo County.

At 10 a.m. sharp, Marcy Martinez of DHR Health gave some brief opening remarks before calling forth Pepe Forina to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office honor guard presented the colors.

Pepe Forina, left, with his brother Tony Forina during the prayer service. Pepe lost his legs to the virus. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

Forina survived a severe case of COVID-19; however, it came at the expense of both of his legs — a rare occurrence for patients who may suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure. He was taken by wheelchair to the podium with the help of his brother, McAllen School Board Trustee Tony Forina, and remained on stage throughout the entirety of the ceremony.

Shortly after, Cortez approached the podium and delivered some remarks, recalling the moment he made the decision to shut down the county as the emergency management director.

“I stand before you today, I must declare that I don’t have a single regret about the safety measures that we launched and so many people in this room helped enact,” Cortez said. “I hope nobody in this room has a single regret that collectively we acted from the best science available to achieve one common goal, and that was keeping our community safe.”

Following remarks from Cardenas and Correa, spiritual leaders from the Valley delivered prayers.

After the prayers, the lights in the auditorium dimmed. Two spotlights illuminated two bells on either side of the podium. Members of the Edinburg and McAllen police and fire honor guards came out of the darkness of the stage to ring the bells in honor of the 3,874 lives lost to COVID-19 since 2020.

The bells were rung a total of 38 times — each toll representing 100 people lost. As the bells tolled through the silent auditorium, images of those lost to the virus were displayed.

McAllen fire and police personnel ring a bell during a prayer service commemorating those who died of COVID-19 on Monday at the Edinburg Conference Center. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

As the service concluded, some onlookers exited the building while others congregated and posed for photos. While this took place, Pepe and his brother Tony exited the stage using a wheelchair elevator.

Pepe remained stoic as he descended from the stage; however, his emotions soon showed through when he began to reflect on the prayer service he’d just witnessed, keenly aware that one of the bell’s tolls could’ve been for him.

“(The service) is helping give me closure on what I’ve been through,” Pepe said, becoming overwhelmed with emotion. “We’ve lost quite a few people in the Valley, and it pains me to know that I could’ve been one of them. I wasn’t because of the people I had around me. It’s giving me closure. I see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s going to be good.”

He said it was the support of the community and his faith that helped him get through his difficult ordeal with COVID-19, an ordeal that he is still facing to this day as he prepares to get fitted for prosthetic legs soon.

“I could’ve been one of them,” Pepe said, recalling the haunting toll of the bells just moments earlier. “I could have very easily been a statistic just like them, and I wasn’t.”