Alton fire officials defended their response to a fatal blaze that killed an 11-year-old this weekend after the girl’s family and neighbors accused them of not doing enough to save her.
“At no point did firefighters run out of water,” Alton Fire Chief Javier Garcia stressed during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
While there were no fire hydrants in the area, an Alton pumper truck, tanker truck and brush truck carrying a total of 4,000 gallons of water arrived at the scene on Alejandra Street within minutes of receiving the call, he said.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra initially said on Sunday it had taken Alton firefighters nine minutes to respond, but John Franz, an investigator with the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s Office, walked back those remarks on Tuesday, saying it actually took firefighters only five minutes and two seconds between the time they were assigned the call and the time they arrived.
It’s unclear, however, which agency took the initial 9-1-1 call and assigned it to Alton — and how long that may have taken.
Still, by the time the first truck arrived at the scene, it was likely already too late, according to Emanuel Espinoza, the acting lieutenant for “A” shift on engine 2, the first unit to arrive at the scene.
Espinoza spoke candidly about what he saw and did that day during the press conference and took questions from reporters.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
As they were driving in, Espinoza said they could already see flames coming out of Versidy Hernandez’ home, which he described as “fully engulfed.”
The girl was inside one of two apartments at the back of the property, her father told Espinoza. So Espinoza and two other firefighters went to the back to assess the situation. Once there, Espinoza wasn’t sure exactly where the girl was, so he ran back to her father. That’s why there’s video of firefighters running back and forth, he said Thursday.
“In the back room where she was, there were no flames but there was a lot of smoke coming out,” Espinoza recalled.
Armed with a “line,” or fire hose, the crew tried to go in through the Northwest corner of the apartment because “it was the only room that wasn’t showing fire coming out of the window,” Espinoza said. Other sides of the building had burglar bars.
“So we did try to make entry, but as soon as we broke the window, it flashed over. And when it flashed over — that means that it was very hot in there,” he said.
Garcia, the fire chief, estimated the temperature inside that room was above the 600-degree mark. And as proof, he displayed a fire-damaged thermal imager — or a camera firefighters use to see inside a burning structure.
The equipment is supposed to be able to withstand scorching temperatures, but was damaged by the flashover, Garcia said. Espinoza, who led the rescue team, also sustained burns to one of his ears even though he was wearing all of his protective gear.
Firefighters are taught that saving lives comes before saving property, Espinoza said, so even though they could tell from the beginning that many factors were against them, he knew they had to try to save Hernandez.
“We were already past that line as soon as we approached, but as a human being we did have to make an attempt,” he said. “And given that the family was there, I decided to make the attempt to go in there with the guys and try to rescue the girl.”
But when the fire flashed over, he knew he had to make the call to go from a search and rescue operation to one that focused on fighting the fire.
“So unfortunately I did have to make that decision, which is a very hard decision to make,” he said, “to pull back and go into defensive attack, which means to attack the fire from the exterior.”
In all, five homes were affected by the blaze, which burned for hours and required more than 80,000 gallons of water and 70 firefighters to finally be put out.
WATER AND FIRST RESPONSE
Neighbors said the two Alton fire trucks carrying water to the scene were slow to arrive, but the fire chief said they were only seconds behind the first engine at the scene.
“Usually the fire trucks get there first because it’s faster. When you have 3,000 gallons of water, you usually go slower, but they get there in ample time,” he said of the two water-carrying vehicles that are always deployed when there’s a fire outside the city’s jurisdiction.
“We always had water, and I can guarantee you that’s a fact,” Garcia said. “I don’t know what people are talking about, (but) we had water.”
Franz said he didn’t want to discount what witnesses believed they saw, but also cautioned about a phenomenon known as “time dementia,” which he said happens to people experiencing a crisis. Time dementia makes seconds seem like minutes and minutes seem like hours, he said.
“Whenever something like this happens… there’s going to be criticism and we understand that,” Franz said. “In their situations it’s rough, and we’re not discounting what people believe.”
Fire officials also addressed criticism about they way firefighters used the water when they first arrived. Instead of pointing the pre-connected hose at the structure to fight the flames, they walked it to the back of the property where the girl was. But that’s exactly what the protocol dictates they should do, Garcia said.
“ A lot of people say, ‘Well they weren’t putting water right away.’ But that’s our protocol. The water creates steam,” he said, noting it can also cause a lot of harm to anyone trapped inside.
Espinoza also defended his actions.
“My decision was to try to rescue the girl that was in the back, so I asked for a line because I wasn’t going to take my colleagues in without a line,” Espinoza said. “I didn’t want to go in there without a line, given the magnitude of the fire.”
Garcia said that while his men followed protocol and did as much as they could, he also understands the pain the Hernandez family is feeling.
“I know what they’re going through. I lost a daughter,” he said. “And I blamed everybody — even God — for a long time because my daughter passed away on New Year’s Eve in a car accident. I even blamed the fire department.”
It’s something that he ultimately lived to regret and said he has since asked the first responders at his daughter’s scene for forgiveness.
Arson has been ruled out and investigators are not treating it like a criminal matter, Franz said. But they don’t yet know what exactly caused the blaze.
And while they ruled out some areas of the house, there is a location between two residences, along property line, that may hold the clues, he said, adding that the investigation is still ongoing.
“We processed that scene and we’re going over evidence and photos and interviewing potential witnesses,” Franz said.
He called on witnesses and anyone with video to share that with his office either through their Facebook page or by calling (956) 318-2656.
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