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Sole survivor of Sea to Sky Highway crash on how faith, community are helping her unimaginable grief

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Iris Paguia-Portillo was in the front passenger seat, and her brother James and two-year-old daughter Natalia in the back seat on their late night drive home from a church gathering on Nov. 26.

Just 20 minutes from their Whistler home, she heard her husband Josefat Portillo scream as their car hit black ice and struck a tree.

“One thing I will never forget, other than my husband screaming and the headlights and us turning, was when the room was dark and the doctor was telling me that they passed, and that I was the only survivor,” said Paguia-Portillo, who has a fractured cheekbone and bruising on one side.

The grief of losing her husband, daughter and brother is compounded by survivors guilt.

“I don’t understand. How come they received so much damage, but I barely got any, because we were all wearing our seatbelts,” Paguia-Portillo said.

The 23-year-old is now planning three funerals.

“A few days ago, I had to choose their burial site, and that was so difficult,” said Paguia-Portillo. “It’s going to hit everyone like a brick when we see them in their caskets.”

The young widow is leaning on her family, and her faith.

“I have such strong pillars of support around me,” she said. “There’s such overwhelming love within my husband’s church community, my church community, and Whistler itself.”

Nesters Market in the village, where Iris, Josefat and James all worked during the pandemic, is holding a fundraiser for the family on Saturday.

“It’s a small town. We all know each other. When things like this do happen, and they do, this town gets together,” said Nesters CEO Bruce Stewart. “Many of our our customers…have given me a hug and said 'Oh my God, how is everyone doing here. Have you talked to Iris, have you talked to the family. Pass along our love.'”

A GoFundMe page set up for the family has already raised more than $75,000.

Paguia-Portillo says the words of support from her community mean even more.

“The way I try to think about it is, there’s a reason why I survived.” She says she will ensure her husband, daughter and brother are never forgotten.

“Sharing their stories, and how my brother James and my husband Jos had such golden hearts, and Natalia was a little bundle of joy,” she said. “I told my family we will try to find that happiness again, and we will seek that. We will miss them, but together, especially with everyone’s support, I know we can build it again.”

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