Juan Romero, the hotel busboy who cradled Robert F. Kennedy’s head after the New York senator was struck by an assassin’s bullets, has died.
Friend Rigo Chacon confirmed Thursday that Romero died at a hospital in Modesto, Calif., on Monday after suffering a heart attack at age 68.
Romero spoke to the Daily News in May as the country marked the 50-year anniversary of Kennedy’s death.
He said it was still hard to talk about that night in the narrow pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Romero was an immigrant busboy at the time and recalled feeling immense pride when the dynastic politician stopped to acknowledge him shortly after midnight on June 5, 1968.
“I remember shaking his hand, and as soon as he let go, we heard those terrible popping sounds,” Romero told The News then.
“I turned to my left, and all I could see was a small group of people, maybe 10 feet away, just struggling, pushing, fighting, wrestling,” he said in May, describing the pandemonium after gunman Sirhan Sirhan opened fire.
When Romero looked back, he saw the candidate who had just won California’s Democratic presidential primary sprawled on the cold floor near an ice machine.
“My immediate reaction was maybe his friends pushed him down to keep him from getting hurt. I thought he might need help to get up, so I ran to him,” Romero told The News.
“I thought he might need help to get up, so I ran to him,” he said.
“He had this faraway look in his eyes. I kneeled down next to him and put my hand between his head and the cold concrete,” Romero recalled.
Romero could see Kennedy’s lips were moving and got close to the face of the U.S. senator from New York, he recalled.
“Is everybody OK?” Kennedy asked him, he said.
“Yes, everybody is OK,” Romero replied.
“He was looking straight at me, and he relaxed his head and turned toward his right and I heard him say, ‘Everything is going to be OK,’ ” Romero recalled.
“I thought, OK, he’s conscious, and I tried to put my hand a little lower to open up his windpipe so he could be a little more relaxed.”
Romero was only 17 at the time, still in high school, but he quickly grasped the gravity of the situation. Kennedy had been pumped with three bullets.
“I felt a warm stream of blood coming down between my hands. That’s when I started calling for help,” he said.
“I remember I was trying to encourage him, telling him, ‘Just hang in there. Everything is going to be OK. You said everything is going to be OK,’” he recalled.
Romero said Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, “gently” pushed him back as he grabbed a rosary out of his pocket and showed it to her.
“She released me, and I went to the senator and cupped the rosary in his hands and tried to close them, but his hands wouldn’t close. Every time I put the rosary in, it popped out again. So I wrapped it around his thumb and a couple of his fingers and went away,” he said.
Kennedy was pronounced dead hours later at age 42.
Black-and-white photos of Romero kneeling beside the mortally wounded senator became the most iconic images of the American tragedy.
For Romero, the photos were shattering on a very personal level. For decades, he considered them grotesque reminders of the shocking slaying and his misplaced guilt that he wasn’t able to stop it.
“For a long time, I was so angry. Angry at myself for not being able to do anything. Angry at the police for not protecting him. Angry at God for letting it happen. I was so miserable. I didn’t want to talk about it,” he told The News.
It wasn’t until the last decade that Romero finally changed his view.
“About five years ago, I finally looked at the picture and really studied it,” he said. “I could finally see what a lot of other people saw. Here was a senator who tried to help minorities, people who couldn’t help themselves, and in the moment when he needed help, here was a Mexican-American busboy trying to comfort him.”