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Alton, county officials defend action in deadly weekend fire

This article originally appeared in the Friday July 26, 2019 issue of the Progress Times.

Two days after a structure fire killed an 11-year-old girl, the Alton Fire Department responded to criticism in their role in putting down the blaze.

The Alton Fire Department responded to a call of a structure fire Sunday at around 3:05 p.m. near Palmview at the 3000 block of Alejandra Street. When they got there, Emanuel Espinoza-the acting fire lieutenant on shift that day-said that the structure was “fully engulfed.”

20190724 AltonFireThough the area is outside Alton city limits, the Alton Fire Department was the first to respond to the scene due to an agreement with Hidalgo County to handle fires and other emergencies in areas that aren’t incorporated to any cities.

“Flames were already coming out of all the windows in the structure…,” Espinoza said. “When we got a window open the flames inside the structure [started to] flashover, which meant the temperature inside was too hot. Unfortunately, I had to make a decision, which is a very hard decision to make, to pull back”

The victim was Versidy Hernandez, a student in the La Joya school district according to a GoFund Me page that was set up in her name. She lived in a house that was split in two and was found on the northwest side of the building.

The fire spread to two neighboring houses and a nearby shed and mobile home.

Two trucks from Alton carrying a total of 4,000 gallons of water showed up. The neighborhood had no fire hydrant but fire departments from McAllen, Palmview, Mission, La Joya and even Brownsville came to assist.

The Alton Fire Department stayed on the scene through 3 a.m. the following morning, Alton City Manager Jeff Underwood said.

The cause of the fire is still being investigated but so far it’s not being looked at as a criminal matter, John Franz, an investigator with the Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s office said.

Due to several circumstances, such as the amount of debris and dry wood in the area, Franz said that the investigation would end up resulting in no definitive cause of the fire being determined.

“Unfortunately, fire eats the evidence and sometimes doesn’t bring closure to families like these,” Franz said Wednesday.

During a Tuesday press conference, officials responded to criticism on how the Alton Fire Department handled the blaze.

According to Franz, many witnesses that the fire marshal’s office interviewed reported that Alton Fire Department took as long as 50 minutes to arrive at the scene. A press release written by Franz said the response time was 9 minutes, something he retracted at the press conference.

“A look at the finalized call log made today showed that between Alton accepting the call to respond and get to the scene took five minutes and two seconds,” Franz clarified.

Franz added that witnesses reporting the long response time may have been attributed to what he called “time dementia,” a phenomenon that occurs during a chaotic and stressful scene as people experience time go by slowly.

“Seconds seem like minutes, minutes seem like hours and in those situations, it’s tough,” Franz said. “We’re not discounting what people believe but during our interview process we canvassed the area and had investigators talking door to door with neighbor and potential witnesses. Those people are giving a statement that they believe, but that’s not an accurate representation of what happened. Our office has verified the accountability of the responding agencies.”

Franz, Espinoza and Alton Fire Chief Javier Garcia also discussed claims from witnesses that the fire department ran out of water multiple times as they fought the blaze in a neighborhood that had no fire hydrant.

The neighborhood didn’t have a fire hydrant due to a lack of residential code enforcement in the area where the population count didn’t reach the threshold to have a hydrant there, Franz said.

Despite the lack of a hydrant, Garcia said his team was well equipped to handle the fire as they arrived with two vehicles that had a combined amount of 4,000 gallons of water.

“We’re prepared and trained for any and all situations-unfortunately not all situations are the same,” Garcia said. “We go in every morning, ensure that our trucks are fully stocked with water and are running well… They get to where they need to in ample time. I’m giving you the facts, we responded with 4,000 gallons of water to combat five structures on fire. That was a lot of fireload but we always had water. I can guarantee that.”

Espinoza credited claims of lack of water from the fire trucks being refilled by the water tanks-which he said was common for many similar incidents.

Between all the different fire departments at the scene fighting the blaze, 80,000 gallons of water was used, he said.

Espinoza, whose left ear suffered severe burns from the flashover despite wearing protective gear, said there was initial confusion when they arrived at the scene. A video that was released on social media filmed the confusion that showed multiple firemen running back and forth from behind the structure, which he said was due to not receiving the specific location of where Hernandez was located from her father. Burglar bars on the windows and a tin roof that trapped the flames inside the house-making it hotter-hindered firefighters from getting in, Espinoza said.

“What we know is Alton got there, we know that at no time did they run out of water, we know there was a continuous effort to search and try to find the individual that was inside. Unfortunately this had a tragic ending,” Franz said. “That’s something that’s very difficult for the first responder community and the family. When they grieve we grieve with them. We’re trying to investigate the cause and figure out how to prevent it in the future, but there was an amazing response.”

Hernandez stayed in the house despite calling her father and 911 to report the fire. Franz said it’s unknown why Hernandez stayed there but stressed that it’s important that parents have smoke detectors in the house and teach their kids to get out of the house as soon as they see a fire starting.

“A member of the community passed away. We may not have been able to save her, but we can take what we’ve learned from this incident and hopefully save a graveyard of other young women,” Franz said.

The Hidalgo County Fire Marshal’s office is requesting that witnesses who have video of the incident to contact their office at (956) 318-2656. Hernadez’s GoFund Me page can be found at here.

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