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The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona

The wonderful story of the heroes made in Arizona

Like every epic story ever told, this one involves a dog. This is the story of the life-changing encounter between a boy and a fugitive in the desert. 16 years ago, on Thanksgiving day, a refugee on the run “gave up his race” for a 9-year-old boy. The events that occurred that day have since birthed the phrase, “The Hero of Magdalena.” However, today, this story shall be re-told as, “The Heroes Made in Arizona.”


The Story of the “Man in Black”

The man in black left Magdalena de Kino in the company of 30 other immigrants. The small Mexican town is a pilgrimage attraction site for its feasts which honor Saint Francis Xavier and Father Kino. So, one November morning in 2007, Manuel Jesus Cordova Soberanes left town in search of greener pastures.

The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona
The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona: A historic mission in the town of Magdalena de Kino, in Sonora, Mexico. The town draws thousands of pilgrims who come to celebrate Saint Francis Xavier and Father Kino, a Jesuit priest who founded missions in the region. Source| CNN

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Coming across a well-paying, decent job in Magdalena was a sport. Manuel worked in a factory that made surgical scrubs for only $100 a week. The then 26-year-old drug addict and father of three knew he had to step up his act. Initially, Manuel planned to land a job in a big city in Arizona. After several failed attempts, Manuel once again departed from Magdalena with optimism that things would be different. That time round, he wanted to “make it into Arizona and stay.”

The group of people Manuel left Magdalena with ended up scattered across the vast desert. However, they had been successful in hiding from authorities for four days. Therefore, Manuel found himself headed North in his own company. Nonetheless, fate had it that he’d stumble upon a lone boy with a dog in the desert. His mind reverted to his kids, instantly telling him what he needed to do

The story of the boy and his mother

The boy’s mother suddenly lost control of the van and Chris still can’t comprehend how that happened. The van rolled and trampled down the hill with 9-year-old Chris in the back seat. Although the two enjoyed camping, Chris had an odd feeling about the particular trip they had that year.

Chris had just lost his dad that September, shortly after their return from a trip to West America. Hence, Chris found himself and his mother making a trip on their own for the first time. Dawn Tomko, a biology teacher and grieving wife was desperate for some air and nature. Consequently, the former park ranger planned a Thanksgiving week trip from their home in Rimrock.

The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona
The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona: Chris Buchleitner and his mother, Dawn Tomko, went on many camping trips together, like the one shown here. Source| CNN

Chris Buchleitner had earlier mentioned to his mother that he was not up for taking that particular trip. Nevertheless, the two left their home along with their dogs, Tanner and Jade. All four were on their way back to their campsite from mountain biking when the van rolled into the canyon.

A life-changing encounter

The van veered off the road and kept rolling down into the canyon until it rested against a tree. Chris reached out from the back seat, turned off the ignition, and covered his critically injured mother with a blanket. Thereafter, he got out of the van with a pair of binoculars, his mother’s phone, and a disconnected mirror from the van in search of help.

Dawn had a big, ugly cut on her arm. When Chris left, she was gasping for breath, unconscious, and stuck in the driver’s seat. Chris went up the steep hill and upon reaching the road, he found Tanner, safe and unharmed. The then 75-pound dog and Chris started trekking down the dusty road where they saw a man in black pants and a black sweatshirt.

Afraid that Tanner would attack the stranger, Chris strapped the binoculars around the dog’s collar. However, Tanner seemed assured that the man posed no threat. Chris approached the stranger, told him they needed his help and the man in black looked confused. It did not take them long to realize that language was the barrier causing the confusion.

The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona
The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona: The US-Mexico border fence crosses the remote and rugged desert near Nogales, Arizona, only a few miles away from the desolate road where Manuel Cordova and Chris Buchleitner met on Thanksgiving 16 years ago. Source| CNN

Manuel swiftly pulled out his ID card, pointed at his name, and introduced himself as Manny. On the other hand, Chris began vaguely explaining his situation to Manny through gestures and the very little Spanish he knew. Although a lot may have been lost in translation, Manuel soon got wind of what had happened. He took off his sweatshirt and covered the freezing boy with it.

The long night

The three rushed down the hill to check on the injured woman trapped in the wrecked van. Although Manuel could hear her strained breathing from outside the van, he could not figure out a way of getting her out of it. Efforts to open the stuck driver’s side door were unsuccessful.

Manny stopped trying to open the door after he realized that it would only worsen matters. The vehicle had rolled off halfway into a canyon and was hanging like a seesaw on the ravine’s slope. Therefore, he tried balancing it with branches and stones. Thereafter, Manny went back to the roadside and made a huge fire for warmth and signal. Manuel, a fugitive, focused all his attention on drawing American authorities to him.

The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona
The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona: Police and fire officials displayed this photo of the crushed van at a ceremony honoring Manuel Cordova’s heroism in December 2007. Source| CNN

Although Chris worried about his mother, he could not make it downhill due to the darkness. Instead, he found comfort in Tanner, curled up by the fire, and eventually laid his head on Tanner’s belly. Nevertheless, Manuel made countless trips to the van to listen in on Dawn’s breathing. However, at midnight, Manny was met with silence.

As Sam slept, the fire continued blazing and eventually, the night passed. Fortunately, two quail hunters stopped by in a pickup truck in the morning and called 911 through a satellite phone.

Manny gets deported

The second local and federal officials arrived at the scene, Manuel was handcuffed. However, he was later uncuffed and apologized to after the authorities spoke with Chris. Yet, Manuel was still an illegal migrant and had to be sent back to his country.

Before the authorities arrived, the ambulance and the firefighters had. The latter team found Jade the dog near the canyon as they were working to pull up the van. Manuel, who could have been on his way to Tuscon or Phoenix, had a change of heart overnight. He knew where he needed to be and decided to stay by Chris’ side.

Manuel and Chris never got the chance to bid each other farewell. The paramedics quickly whisked Chris away into the ambulance upon their arrival. However, the outlaw asked for two things from the authorities before his deportation. Manuel requested a cigarette and more time at the scene. Hope still lingered within him that Dawn had survived the night and the accident. Unfortunately, after retrieving the body from the van, it became evident that she was dead.

Manuel could not stop the tears falling down his face as he made his way to the Border Patrol truck. He thought about his late dad, his late grandmother, and the late Dawn, whom he had failed to save. But to his surprise, the firefighters present broke into a heavy round of applause for his acts of bravery. Manuel returned to Magdalena as unceremoniously as he had left. He did not narrate his ordeal to anyone until the day his father asked him, “What did you do?”

The Story of the Hero of Magdalena

The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona
The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona: Rio Rico Fire Chief Michael M. Foster thanks Manuel Cordova during a ceremony on December 4, 2007, at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales, Arizona. At right is Cordova’s mother, Alma Lidia Soberanes. Foster also gave Cordova a small stuffed horse, telling him he’d been a hero in the wilderness, like the Lone Ranger. Source| CNN

A fortnight after his deportation, Manuel became a wanted man north of the border. The mayor wanted to meet him, so Manuel disclosed to his father about the events that led him to the desert and back. In this way, Manuel found himself crossing the border again, but this time as a “Guest of honor.”

At the Nogales Port of Entry, Manuel was received by diplomats, reporters, police officers, and firefighters. Plaques inscribed with his name were presented to him. Additionally, the local fire chief gifted him a small stuffed horse and likened him to the Lone Ranger; a hero in the wilderness. Moreover, Mexico’s top diplomat in the Arizona border hailed Manuel for his selflessness. She added, “The desert has a way of rearranging priorities.”

Yet, in all this, Manuel could only afford to say “Gracias” after all eyes and cameras rolled in his direction for a speech. The rapid shift from a fugitive to a celebrity overwhelmed him. However, Manuel did not feel like a hero that day. His mind kept going back to the people who were not there; Chris and his mother Dawn. Manny kept wondering about what had happened to the boy and where he was.

The orphan boy

Jack and Dawn Buchleitner had made a “worst-case scenario plan” for baby Chris before meeting their untimely deaths. Chris’ dad, Jack, had asked his sister Mary Butera to take in Chris if he was ever orphaned. Therefore, Mary and Vinny Butera adopted Chris and moved him to Pittsburgh, where grew up in love and support.

Jade and Tanner were also adopted by another aunt and Chris visited them regularly till the day they died. Although he never got over his loss, Chris learned to embrace his new fate. He studied biology like his mother and graduated from Duquesne University in 2020 with a degree in nursing. Chris seldom talks about the Thanksgiving in 2007, but his closest friends and colleagues know what happened.

The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona
The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona: Chris Buchleitner is now nearly the same age Manuel Cordova was the day they met. He’s working as a nurse in Pittsburgh, specializing in heart patients. Source| CNN

He also keeps thinking about the man in black and wonders what happened to him. However, he avoids looking up stories on the incident as they are too painful for him to read. Nonetheless, Chris doesn’t know if he would have survived that night had Manuel not shown up and he would love to say, “Thank you.”

The Heroes made in Arizona

Although a decade and a half has passed since the incident, Manuel still gets calls from reporters and strangers as well. He hopes that his story dispels fears that all immigrants are criminals. Manuel believes we all have a unifying factor; humanity and that anyone would have done what he did. His story has been told and retold in sermons, op-eds, writings, and musicals.

Once in a while, however, he wishes he would have been presented with a visa to legally work and live in the USA instead of plaques and recognition. A while back, Arizona congressman, Raul Grijalva, proposed a bill that would allow Manuel a chance to live and work in the US. Unfortunately, the bill never made it past the congressional committee. Consequently, Manuel has never tried to cross the border again. He currently resides hours away from Magdalena and works in a bazaar.

The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona
The Wonderful Story of The Heroes Made in Arizona: Manuel Cordova poses in a recent photo with his son Eythan, 12. Source| CNN

Manuel Jesus Cordova turned a new leaf. He quit drugs a few weeks after his last deportation. Additionally, the encounter opened his eyes to the world, not as a hero, but as a man, and he is now the world’s most confident man. Manuel rekindled his relationship with his kids and regrets the time he served in jail for failing to pay child support. The 42-year-old is now a father of seven and a grandfather of four. Manny finds solace in what he did for Chris instead of wishing for an alternate life in America. However, a part of him wishes he had been able to save Dawn as well.

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All is well

On the other hand, Chris is currently a nurse at UPMC Shadyside Hospital in Pittsburgh. He specializes in heart patients and works 12 hours a working day. Although his work is stressful and challenging, he finds solace in saving lives. Chris goes to work 3 days a week and spends the rest exploring the world. He still enjoys outdoor activities since his mother had dreams of taking him to breathtaking places.

The 25-year-old took a trip to North Cascades National Park in Washington in September. The beauty of the place reminded him of his mother, who had promised him a trip there 16 years ago before her death.

When asked whether he would do it again, Manuel answered, “One and a thousand times more. Without thinking about it or doubting it.”


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