Palmview defends response in deadly fire

Palmview city attorney Eric Flores and city manager Michael Leo during a press conference on Thursday Aug. 15, 2019 in Palmview. Photo by Delcia Lopez/The Monitor

PALMVIEW — Officials with the city of Palmview said they want to set the record straight, holding a news conference Thursday morning to dispel what they claim are false statements regarding the fire department’s response to a deadly fire last month that claimed the life of an 11-year-old girl.

City Attorney Eric Flores — joined by Palmview firefighters, Fire Chief Jerry Alaniz and City Manager Michael Leo — held the news conference in direct response to statements made Wednesday by an attorney representing the family of the victim, Versidy Hernandez, who died trapped inside her home near Palmview on July 21.

In a news conference of their own Wednesday, San Antonio attorney Chris Mayo spoke on behalf of Versidy’s parents — Valeria Gutierrez and Ventura Hernandez — questioning whether there was any “negligence or malfeasance” on the part of the entities that responded to the fire.

The city of Alton, whose fire department was the first on the scene, defended their actions following chatter that they didn’t have enough resources or didn’t respond fast enough to the fire.

But on Wednesday, Mayo aimed criticisms at the city of Palmview, suggesting they should have been the first on the scene but that Palmview passed on the call. Mayo added, though, that his team of investigators was still working to confirm that information.

Now Palmview is claiming that is completely false.

“On July 21, 2019, the city of Palmview did not receive an emergency call in regards to the fire and we certainly did not pass the call as Mr. Mayo falsely stated yesterday,” Flores, the Palmview city attorney said Thursday morning. “In fact, the call we received on July 21 was a mutual aid call made by Alton Fire Department to Palmview Fire Department to provide additional assistance for the scene.”

Flores said the city’s records will reflect that on that day, their department only received three calls for service — none related to the fire that killed Versidy.

“The primary agency responsible for this call and for this area was Alton Fire Department, not the city of Palmview,” Flores said, explaining the area where the fire occurred is outside Palmview’s coverage area.

The area is outside of any city limits and under the jurisdiction of Hidalgo County. However, through a contract with the county, the Alton Fire Department is responsible for responding to fires.

Flores said that when Palmview received the call to assist Alton firefighters, they responded efficiently.

“Our records will further show that within one minute of the mutual aid call, our chief of fire dispatched Tank 1, Medic 2 and an additional brush truck with a total of 2,300 gallons of water,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, Flores added, Alaniz, the Palmview fire chief, initiated a second alarm to recall all resources and personnel to the scene.

Leo, Palmview city manager, reiterated that the only call Palmview received regarding the fire was to assist Alton, but did not receive the initial 911 call.

“The 911 call did not come to the city of Palmview; did not come through the city of Palmview,” Leo said.

But had they received the call, Chief Alaniz said they would have responded.

“We would not have not responded,” Alaniz said. “We would have responded and let the agency that would have been responding initially, let them know that we’re also en route as well.”

In total, 11 personnel from the Palmview Fire Department responded to the fire, Flores said, later praising them for their service.

“These fine gentlemen behind me are here to save lives and that’s it, we’re a nonprofit organization, we’re an entity whose job is to care for our residents and our neighboring residents,” Flores said. “In this particular situation, we sent — as they would say — the cavalry and Chief Alaniz didn’t think twice about it.”

Flores stressed that the statements made by Mayo were “deeply troubling and concerning” and noted that his investigators had not reached out to the city to request documents or information about the city’s role in the incident.

In response, Mayo’s law firm issued a statement Thursday afternoon in which they stood behind their comments from Wednesday.

“Although Mr. Flores felt it necessary to engage in name-calling, we have made it very clear that there is speculation and contradicting versions of the occurrence out there, and because Palmview and others immediately went into defense mode, it has made it difficult for the family to obtain the answers they deserve,” the statement read. “The bottom line is this, we want answers and if the evidence clears anyone or implicates anyone, we will give credit where credit is due and do what we can to hold those accountable where negligence is uncovered.”