Fire victims give thanks

First diploma burns, but Salas family will rebuild its ‘American Dream’

An Odell family recently lost all of their household goods in a devastating fire but are thankful that they all escaped with only a few minor burns.

Antonio Salas, Sr., and the other five members of his household watched in stunned disbelief during the night of April 3 when flames destroyed their Midway Road home. The eldest son, Jose, 19, said the fire took away not only his family’s material goods but the most tangible symbol of their hard-earned independence.

“For us, it was like an American dream to have our own house,” said Jose.

That first home ownership in 2002 had been the reward for more than 12 years of hard work after the family immigrated to the United States from Mexico and settled into the Hood River Valley. Like many Latino families, the Salas’ began their employment history in the United States as farm laborers and then gradually moved into positions with other businesses.

The elder Antonio, who eventually was hired by Wal-Mart, and his wife, Esther, a Taco Time employee, insisted that all three of their children, including daughter Fabiola, 18, and son Antonio, Jr., 16, get as much formal education as possible.

“They told us that we needed to go to school and get good grades to make good money,” said the younger Antonio.

It was a proud moment for both parents to attend Jose’s graduation ceremony last June and watch him collect the family’s first diploma. One of their most poignant losses in the fire was that badge of achievement and the photographs of each child that were showcased on the living room wall.

Jose had been working shifts at both Wal-Mart and Taco Time since his graduation to help make the mortgage payment and save for vocational training.

But his plans to become a mechanic have been put on hold until his family, including his paternal uncle, Felimon Salas, can find a rental home and replace their lost goods. Meanwhile, they are temporarily lodged at the Comfort Suites hotel for a discounted rate and have been given some essential clothing items by the Hood River Chapter of the American Red Cross.

During an interview last week, brothers Antonio and Jose recounted the horror of trying to escape from a fire that had almost fully engulfed their home before they were even aware of the danger. Jose said the alarm was sounded by his girlfriend, April Button, who was sleeping in the living room and was awakened shortly before 2 a.m. by flames breaking through a sliding glass door panel.

“All you could hear was the ‘pop’ of the windows, when we saw the flames it was shocking,” said Antonio, who helped Jose carry his disabled sister out of a bedroom window when the exits were blocked by the conflagration.

They said it was a great relief when everyone was safely away from the fire, which also warped the paint and cracked the windshield on their vehicle, parked about five feet from the home. However, Felimon, realizing they needed a way to call for help, risked a return trip inside the blazing house to retrieve his cell phone. Once emergency responders had been notified, Jose said the family could only stand there and watch everything they owned go up in flames.

“My first thought was to get everyone out, there wasn’t time to go back to get stuff,” he said.

Although the structure was insured and the Salas’ plan to rebuild on the property, they also face the task of replacing all of its contents, which were not covered by their policy.

Jose and Antonio, who also works part-time at Taco Time, think of the fire as only a temporary setback to their future plans, another hurdle that the family will overcome through a united effort.

“You get closer to your family during times like these because you helped one another survive,” said Antonio.

Odell Fire Chief Jeff Walker said the cause of the fire has not been determined. He said it appears to have begun on an outside patio and spread from the roof to the attic while the occupants were sleeping. By the time that firefighters arrived, he said the entire structure was ablaze and, in spite of a four hour battle, it was unable to be saved.

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