Emilia quickly said goodbye to her mom, eager to go inside and see her grandmother, but Elisa Tambunga called her 7-year-old daughter back to give her a big hug and kiss, and to say, “I love you.” Those would be the last words the mother would ever speak to her daughter.
It was March 13 and Emilia had just started spring break, but her mother still needed to go to work. Given the option to go to work with her mom or spend the day with her grandmother in their hometown of Ozona, Texas, the choice was easy for the 7-year-old. Emilia and her grandmother, Maria Tambunga, had a special bond.
“We always say as a family, we think I had Emilia just for my mom,” Tambunga told The Daily Signal. “They were just inseparable.”
Tambunga became pregnant with her daughter Emilia when she was 19 and her mother “was the biggest support from the moment I found out,” she said, adding that Maria Tambunga “was the most loving, strongest person I know.”
Being with family, according to Maria Tambunga’s husband, Emilio Tambunga, was what made his wife “the happiest,” and March 13 was set to be a happy day.
“My wife and Emilia had arranged a play date with her cousins at the football field,” Emilio Tambunga said. Elisa Tambunga planned to join her parents and daughter for dinner at home later that night but needed to take an exam for a course first.
“In the middle of my accounting exam is when I got the phone call,” Elisa Tambunga recalls. She immediately thought something had happened to her mother, adding that in her mind “there was just no way that something could have happened to Amelia.”
“It wasn’t until I got to the scene that they told me it was my mom and Amelia,” Elisa Tambunga said.
She soon learned that Rassian Comer, a human smuggler, was involved in a high-speed chase with police and had taken the life of her mother and daughter. Comer flew through a red light traveling at speeds over 100 mph and carrying 11 illegal aliens in his truck. His vehicle collided with Maria Tambunga’s pickup truck, ending her life and that of Emilia, who was in the back seat.
“He mutilated them,” Elisa Tambunga said of the human smuggler responsible for the crash. “There’s no other way to sugar coat,” she said. “You know, my 7-year-old was murdered. My mom was murdered. And that all has to do with because of our border crisis.”
The smuggler’s vehicle decimated her mom’s pickup truck, ambulances and police cars flashed their lights, and a helicopter landed to airlift the wounded from the scene.
Two of the 11 illegal aliens in the human smuggler’s truck were also killed in the crash.
Emilio Tambunga says he was “close to hysterical” when he learned about the accident.
“Being a Marine [and] in law enforcement … I considered myself pretty tough as far as trauma scenes, accident scenes,” the grandfather and husband said. When he saw the accident, however, Emilio Tambunga says he “just fell apart.”
Elisa Tambunga described a chaotic scene with sirens and yelling, comparing how she felt at the accident site to something in a movie where everything is in slow motion.
“I just kept yelling, ‘Where’s Amelia?’” Elisa Tambunga recalls. “And they told me that she was gone, [they] just kept saying, ‘She’s gone, she’s gone, Lisa.’”
The mother could not comprehend in that moment that her 7-year-old had just been killed and continued to ask, “’Gone where? She’s not gone … where is she?’ And I thought, maybe she’s in an ambulance. Or maybe she’s in that helicopter. I just need to find her.”
Elisa Tambunga eventually did see the bodies of her daughter and her mother, lying in a funeral home, a moment that was captured on video and that she later had the opportunity to show to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
About a month after the accident, Elisa, her father, and her sister traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the Republican Congressional Hispanic Conference and attend a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing in which Mayorkas was testifying.
During the hearing, Rep. August Pfluger, R-Texas, told the story of how Maria and Emilia Tambunga were killed, and asked Mayorkas to apologize to the Tambunga family present at the hearing. Mayorkas did so and agreed to meet with the family after the hearing.
“I was not coming to him as another politician,” Elisa Tambunga said. “I went to him as a mother, as a mother grieving, as a daughter grieving.”
Elisa Tambunga said Mayorkas appeared “very guarded” at first, but after she showed him the video of her mother and daughter lying dead in the funeral home, Mayorkas “let his guard down just enough for him to be receptive to us,” she said.
Elisa Tambunga says she told the DHS secretary that she “wanted the border to be controlled,” and for “the administration to be held accountable.” She added that she and her family want to “make sure that not only us American citizens are being protected and kept safe, but everyone.”
In the moment, Elisa Tambunga says she believes Mayorkas “heard us,” but is not sure “how well he kept, you know, kept it with him.”
DHS did not respond to The Daily Signal’s repeated request for comment.
“For me and my family, the blood of my daughter, the blood of our mom, it’s on everybody’s hands,” Elisa said. “I mean, from the administration, down to local officials, from President [Joe] Biden, to Mayorkas, to our senators, to our governors, all of them.”
The mother says that instead of officials using their offices to create change, “they’re using it as a political playground instead.”
The Tambunga family came to America from Mexico many generations ago, but “we did it the right way.” She added that she understands the “system is broken and that it’s incredibly hard to get over here. And I understand they want a better life, and we want that for them too, but we want it done the correct way.”
The cartel recruited the human smuggler on TikTok, Elisa Tambunga said she learned. The smuggler is in custody and has been indicted. He faces multiple charges, including capital murder, but has not entered a plea and has not been sentenced yet.
The nine surviving illegal aliens who were smuggled into the country were “fingerprinted and they were just let go. There [were] no interviews. There [was] no questioning. They were just released,” according to Elisa Tambunga.
Customs and Border Protection and the Crockett County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Signal.
Life without Maria and Emilia Tambunga is “painful,” according to Emilio Tambunga. He admitted that he has been sleeping in his granddaughter’s bunkbed because he has not “had the courage to sleep in my wife’s, in our, bed.”
The grandfather says weekends are especially hard because Emilia would often spend the weekend at her grandparents’ house.
“She’d be the first one to wake up and ask for cereals,” Emilio Tambunga said of his granddaughter, recalling how the two had a habit of mixing different types of cereals together before eating them. “I kind of miss that, eating breakfast together.”
“We always said the only thing we want is to create change and make sure this never happens to another family again,” Elisa Tambunga said. “And where we live, it happens constantly, and I need … Congress to hear it, that it’s continuing to happen. That we need change.”
Tambunga told her story before members of Congress during a July hearing. The mother says she is choosing to continue sharing her story “so that no other mother or daughter feels this way again.”
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