EDINBURG — The parents of an 11-year-old girl killed in a fire last month still have many unanswered questions and have hired a team of investigators to conduct their own review, the couple’s attorney said Wednesday.
Valeria Gutierrez and Ventura Hernandez took deep breaths and fought back tears as they spoke about their daughter inside a small conference room at the Cambria Hotel in McAllen on Wednesday morning. It was the first time they spoke publicly about the death of 11-year-old Versidy Hernandez, who died trapped inside their home near Palmview July 21.
San Antonio Attorney Chris Mayo gave a brief summary of the case before introducing the couple.
“The reason why we’re here today is because, as you know, on July 21 a young girl tragically died in a house fire, and there were enough questions that arose from this child’s death that the family wanted answers — and I think, rightfully so,” he said. “There’s a lot of questions from that tragedy regarding whether or not there was negligence or malfeasance on the part of the county or a part of these cities that responded to the fire.”
The response to the blaze — which tore through five structures and took 70 firefighters to put out — has been a point of contention between local officials and witnesses at the scene, with first responders arguing they did all that could be done and witnesses saying the contrary.
It’s an emotional argument for both sides and each has spoken out in its defense.
Officials from the Alton Fire Department, which was the first to arrive on scene, and the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s office held a news conference two days after the blaze to defend their actions, saying they had adequate resources in place and were timely in their response.
The family, however, has questions about that.
“Remember, there were discrepancies on time,” Mayo said. “First it started at one time, then it went to nine minutes response time, and then it went to five minutes response time, and now it’s two minutes response time.
“They keep changing their story.”
Mayo also paid close attention to the words fire officials used to describe their arrival at the scene.
“If you look at the words that they employ … their words are very carefully guarded. They say ‘from the time that they were informed of this.’ What does that mean?” Mayo asked rhetorically. “Why can’t we say ‘the time that the initial call came in.’ How long did it take from that time, when that call came in, to when an actual unit was actually deployed to their house and actually showed up at their house? Let’s talk about those times.”
Mayo suspects those discrepancies may have something to do with the city of Palmview.
“Well, we know that the initial call that came in to 9-1-1, that the city that should have responded to the calls was Palmview, and Palmview passed on the call, it appears,” Mayo said, indicating the call was passed to the Alton Fire Department.
However, the attorney later said his team of investigators is still working to confirm that information. Palmview officials, on the other hand, told a Monitor reporter the city was going to hold a news conference Thursday morning to address these comments.
Still, Ventura Hernandez, the girl’s father, points to his own response time as a measurement. Ventura was in the process of dropping off his wife for work at a nearby Subway when his daughter called about the fire.
When asked about the call, he responded, “It was terrible. She had told me, ‘There’s a fire in the house.’ So I proceeded to tell her, get out of the house and get 9-1-1. Her response was ‘OK.’ And after that, I mean, I arrived within minutes.”
Ventura said he had taken his time taking his wife to work, which is about three miles away from their home, making sure to obey all traffic laws as he headed to the restaurant.
“But when I got her call, everything went out the window,” he said. “I put my emergency lights on and I passed every red light that there was in between.”
His daughter called him at 2:57 p.m., and by 3:01 p.m. he was already outside the home, frantically trying to find a way to get to his daughter.
What transpired next depends on who you ask. For Versidy’s parents, it’s a terrible blur filled with anger, frustration and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
“As soon as I saw the firefighters, I felt relief — my daughter is going to be OK — but …,” Ventura trailed off.
Firefighters, who removed him from the home, previously said they knew as soon as they arrived there was not much they could do for Versidy, but they tried anyway. The family, of course, disputes that.
Still, it might not be first responders who may be to blame, and a big reason for the private investigation is to make sure that all angles are looked at, Mayo said.
“Obviously, we have the utmost respect for first responders. The family does. They’re very important for our community,” he said. “And it’s not necessarily the first responders who we might take umbrage with, or that we might have an issue with. It’s something greater than that.
“If it was leadership that prevented the first responders from actually doing their job, well we have a problem with that.”
Those issues include making sure that first responders have adequate funding, equipment, resources and training.
“I can tell you at this point, we have been contacted, as part of our investigation, by some first responders. Because one thing I’ve learned over the years as a lawyer is that in situations like this, the first people who are really upset about it are actually the boots on the ground,” Mayo said. “The first responders. They’re the ones that get upset about it because they realize that there’s politics involved, there’s economics involved, that prevent them from doing their job, and they’re going to be upset about that.”
The family doesn’t exactly know why Versidy wasn’t able to get out in time, though they have reason to believe fire blocked her exit.
“If she didn’t get out, it’s because she couldn’t,” Ventura said. “She was a very smart girl. She was an 11-year-old, but her mindset was above her age.
“If she didn’t get out, it’s because she couldn’t. Not because she didn’t want to.”
Versidy had just finished elementary school as a millionaire reader and was excited to head to sixth grade, her mother, Valeria said.
“She had chosen dance as her elective and computer (class) because she wanted to learn more about computers, and she was excited to be in the dance team,” Valeria said. “It hurts me a lot that she’s never going to be able to have anymore first days of school.”
Versidy had big dreams.
“Just two weeks before, she had told me that when she grew up, she wanted to have her own store and sell pastry items. I was so excited to try her pasties and help her with them, and now that’s not going to happen, and all her dreams are gone,” Valeria said, again taking deep breaths to stop herself from crying.
“I had her when I was very young, but she was the best baby, so easy, and she was like that ‘til the day…,” Gutierrez trailed off, unable to say the words. “She was very lovable, very respectable, she loved her sister; she was the best older sister that anybody could ask for.”
And it’s been especially tough to explain Versidy’s absence to her little sister, who doesn’t fully understand that she’s gone, Valeria said.
“… And those are hard conversations, you know? We try to just tell her that she’s sleeping and we’ll see her again. So it’s really hard on both of us — on me and my husband and our youngest daughter,” she said. “We dont know how we’re going to do life without her. She was the best.”
In the meantime, they’ll keep fighting to get answers to the questions that continue to torment them day in and day out.
“I just don’t want this to happen to anybody else because words (like) sad, depressed, heartbroken — they don’t even describe what I feel in my heart,” Valeria said.