NEAR PALMVIEW — A man wearing a black shirt ran up to the four women anxiously waiting behind the yellow police tape.
“They found her,” he said as the women held onto each other tightly and screamed, “no.”
The man who delivered the news about the death of 11-year-old Versidy Hernandez paced back and forth with a bewildered look in his eyes as smoke rose from the house in the distance.
“She was innocent… and real down to earth,” her great-uncle from Mission said.
Versidy’s relative did not wish to be fully identified given the sensitive subject and will only be referred to as Hernandez.
The cause of the fire near Palmview is currently under investigation by the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s (HCFM) office.
“At this time everything is on the table as far as causes,” said John Franz, an investigator with the HCFM office. “We really got to narrow some of that stuff down, but because of the amount of damage and size of the scene, it’s really difficult.”
Franz said HCFM has called in START, or the South Texas Arson Response Team, to help with the investigation. START is comprised of fire investigators from across multiple cities in the Rio Grande Valley that pool their resources together to figure out a case.
Franz also said it’s hard to tell how long the investigation will take because of the complexity of the matter. More than likely, investigators will rule this as an “undetermined” fire with a few high probability causes, he said.
Meanwhile, the Hernandez family has come together in their time of mourning. Many family members sat outside Hernandez’s yellow home, located across the street from Versidy’s now demolished house. They sat solemnly Monday afternoon as the American Red Cross delivered supplies to them, like water and blankets. The family has also started a fundraiser on GoFundMe.
Hernandez described Versidy as quiet, humble and respectful.
“Whenever she came to the house she would give you a kiss,” Hernandez said, holding back tears.
Her parents are “hardworking and good people,” he said, adding that Versidy’s father is his nephew.
“Her sister has been asking where she is,” Hernandez said about the girl’s 4-year-old sibling.
The family was planning a trip to San Antonio this summer because Versidy wanted to go to Six Flags, he said.
She also had a goal to become an Accelerated Reader Millionaire during the upcoming school year, like her older cousin, and was headed to seventh grade in the La Joya school district.
Hernandez was not present when the fire occurred Sunday afternoon, but he said his nephew tried to get inside the burning structure to save his daughter. First responders physically restrained Versidy’s parents to stop them from going inside.
Franz said emergency personnel were protecting them.
“Firefighters are going to handle the fire,” Franz said. “That’s when the victims have the highest chance of survival — when the right people go in.”
Versidy did make at least one phone call to her father prior to dying to tell him about the fire.
Hernandez was critical of the way emergency personnel responded. He believes “they took their time to get here” and “hesitated” to go in.
“The first responders that came, they came without water or without anything,” Hernandez said, visibly upset. “You should come prepared and suited up.”
Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said Sunday the Alton Fire Department arrived approximately nine minutes after the initial 911 calls.
Guerra said Alton firefighters described the scene with one structure already fully engulfed.
Multiple agencies were on scene Sunday afternoon to assist with the emergency.
Palmview Fire Chief Jerry Alaniz said there were around 70 firefighters on site.
“We did everything we could to try to locate the individual,” Alaniz said, referring to Versidy. “Everybody was doing what they’re trained to do.”
Alaniz did admit that there were no fire hydrants for first responders to use. However, he clarified that the fire was so big, emergency personnel needed mass amounts of water.
“We were going through water so quickly because the heat was so intense,” Alaniz said.
The fire occurred on Alejandra Street, just north of 3 Mile Line and La Homa Road. This area is outside of any city limits and falls under county jurisdiction. Alton Fire Department is responsible for answering to fires, which is why they were the first ones on scene, while the county handles police response.
In response to Hernandez’s criticism, Franz said the Alton fire department responded immediately.
“When it comes to… an emergency situation, especially for the victims, seconds seem like minutes and minutes seem like hours,” Franz explained.
Franz said the first engine to arrive was primarily machinery, but another truck carrying water arrived 10 to 15 seconds later. He defended the firefighters, saying they worked as quickly as possible while still making sure everything worked effectively.
Franz also said that during the nine minutes it took for Alton firefighters to arrive, “well-intentioned individuals” started to break windows in attempts to help Versidy. However, that only made the situation worse by introducing more oxygen into the fire.
“We’re not here to put blame on anybody,” Franz said. “People want to help each other, especially when there’s a child involved. While they were trying to do the right thing, it really complicated the situation.”
Franz said what happened was very tragic and his office wants to prevent these kinds of incidents from happening again in the future.
“We do want to remind Hidalgo County citizens that any time we have a fatality in a fire, there’s always going to be something that could’ve prevented it,” Franz said. “In this case, we want to remind people, if you have children… make sure you talk to them about ways out of the home. You always want to have two ways out of the house.”
Hernandez said their family just wishes they still had her.
“She’s needed here,” Hernandez said. “The house doesn’t matter. The life that was taken away from us — that’s what hurts the most.”