Something caused the walls of our two-story home in the Orlando, Florida suburb of Sanford to shake. Seconds later there was a loud explosion.
I thought a nuclear bomb had gone off. Disney World was the only thing close, but who would want to bomb Mickey?
My four-year-old daughter Gabriella – Gabi was sleeping in our bedroom, which was on the first floor. My stepson Jimmy, who was 10, was in his upstairs bedroom. My wife Gladys and I were in the office where I ran my company out of, Professional Window Treatments of Central Florida, which was also on the second floor.
I was still in my underwear, and had an untouched cup of coffee on my desk. I was talking on the phone to a neighbor who installed blinds and shutters for me. My wife was behind me, faxing in an order when the explosion happened.
We ran out of the office. At this point I had no idea that our house was even on fire. I just knew we had to get out of there. Gladys went down the stairs as fast as she could. She went through the living room and out the front door. When I ran out of the office, I started toward Jimmy’s room first, but I saw Jimmy already coming down the hallway. So I headed down the steps as well.
When I got to the open front door, I stopped – one hand on either side of the door frame, realizing Gabi wouldn’t know what to do. I turned back and ran for her.
I had no thoughts of what could happen when I went to find Gabi – just that I had to get her out. It didn’t matter what would happen to me as long as I could save my baby. I didn’t consider the danger I was putting myself in. I just instinctively ran to find her. I was absolutely certain I was going to get her out. Failing was not an option.
In my haste I ran upstairs to her room, forgetting she was downstairs in our bed. I was so upset I wasted those valuable seconds. When I finally got back down to the master bedroom and opened the door, smoke billowed out. The fire was deafening. I had no idea how loud fire could actually be. Smoke was getting into my lungs. The sound of the flames was like a steady roar. The smoke was so thick I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.
I stumbled across the debris making my way to the bed. I kept yelling as loud as I could. “Gabi, Gabi! Daddy’s here to save you! Where are you?” She didn’t respond. All I could hear were Gabi’s cries, but I couldn’t tell where they were coming from.
As a parent, you understand the different cries of your child. You can tell when she’s hurt, when she’s tired, or when she’s just cranky. This was like none of those. These cries were different. They sounded like the cries of someone who had lost hope.
I finally made it to the bed. It was covered with tattered drywall and broken 2x4’s. With one hand I lifted the debris, desperately searching with the other to find my little girl. All the time continuing to call out for her, and hearing nothing in response but those haunting cries. I can still hear those cries today.
The fire was getting closer. I was standing right in front of the open closet door with my back to it. This closet was about 12 feet deep. I wanted to see how close the flames were so I turned. What I saw could be anyone’s rendition of what hell might look like. Inferno would be
understating it. I had never seen fire so intense. It was 10 to12 feet away from me, floor to ceiling.
The intensity of my search ramped up to match the danger I now realized I was in. At this point, I didn’t even feel the heat. I didn’t feel any pain. I didn’t even realize the struggle I was having to breathe. Finally overcome by the smoke, I blacked out. My body slumped onto the bed while the flames got closer.
It must have been an angel that woke me, shouting, “Get out now!” My back had been facing the fire in the master bedroom, but from the time I heard this voice, to when I stumbled out of the house and off the front porch, seemed like only a few seconds. The first person I saw was Jimmy. He looked blistered and was standing in a way that looked like he was in a great deal of pain. His forehead skin was hanging down like a scarf. I told him, “It’ll be ok.”
How it would be ok, I didn’t know.
I collapsed on the grass, and kept yelling, “Someone get my daughter! She’s in the master bedroom on the first floor!” However, I knew that as much as I loved Gabi, if I couldn’t find and rescue her, nobody else could.
By the look of horror on the faces of kids looking at me, I could tell I must have looked awful. I was embarrassed thinking about the fact that I was only in my underwear.
I remember my wife leaning down and telling me, “You did good, Pete.”
I passed out. Next thing I remember I was on the sidewalk across the street being attended to by a medic. She swabbed my nose. What came out was black. I couldn’t feel anything. It was only about five minutes from our house to the hospital. I felt I needed to stay awake so at every turn I tried to think of what street we were on. I was actually pretty right on. I was not surprised when they stopped, opened the back door and slid the stretcher out.
There was a lot of commotion around me. Then everything went black.
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