By Pfc. Emily Knitter, 1HBCT Public AffairsApril 28, 2011
FORT STEWART, Ga. - The house was brand new, thick carpeting came right to the door, blocking out noise from other parts of the house and from the neighbors next door who also had small children. There were boxes everywhere, opened and rummaged through as the Family slowly moved in. The master bedroom was covered in everyone's clothes. As the final photos were hung on the wall earlier that day, the mess had begun to feel like a home for the Ortiz Family.
On the evening of their fourth day living there, everyone was in the bedroom digging through the pile of clothes for something to wear to the store. They had just received a package from their dad's mother with some more things for the kids and slippers for everyone, so all five members of the Family were trying on the new slippers and slowly getting ready. The youngest, three-year-old Chaila, was the first to be dressed. The little brown-eyed girl couldn't sit still any longer and decided to leave the room and head somewhere else to explore.
The neighbors in the attached house were also getting ready for a normal Friday. The wife had taken their van to the store, so the husband was able to park his truck under the garage awning, instead of out on the street like usual.
"He said his dog was actually the reason they knew something was wrong," Ricardo said. "The dog was going crazy. Then one of their neighbors came and said they saw a ball of fire under the truck. He tried to put it out with a fire extinguisher but it had gone up too much by then."
In the Ortiz' side of the house, they were unaware anything was wrong.
As Chaila opened the bedroom door, the sound of frantic knocking came from downstairs.
"We thought, 'that's not normal,'" Ridardo said, as his wife went running to answer.
Their neighbor had been banging on the door to warn them for a few minutes, but the Family had heard nothing.
"I opened the door and all the smoke came flooding in," Yamira said. "I was in shock because I never expected to see fire so close. I started yelling, 'we need to get out, we need to get out!'"
As the alarms finally started ringing, Ricardo grabbed the kids.
"She didn't say fire so it didn't trigger in my head until we got downstairs," he said. "I opened the door and out of the corner of my eye I could see the flames coming out of [my neighbors truck]."
The fire quickly consumed the truck, spreading to the garage roof and setting the Ortiz' van ablaze as well before transferring to the house itself.
"We ran to the rear of the house and then Yamira asked me where the dog was," said Ricardo. "I thought Max was in the back yard, but then we realized he was still inside."
The five-month old puppy had been a present to the children when their father had left for training.
"I said I couldn't leave him in there, so I ran back in," he said. "Luckily he was waiting at the door, so I grabbed him by the neck and got out again."
A minute after Ricardo and Max made it back to where the Family was huddled together, the windows and tires from the burning cars started exploding.
"Every time one of the tires exploded I would cry more and more," Yamira said. "Because if it wasn't for Chaila, we wouldn't have heard the knocking and we could have still been inside."
The Family lost everything except for the clothes on their backs, the new slippers on their feet, and each other.
"It's going to take time for us to be normal again, because every time I even think about it I start crying," Yamira said. "People say it was just material things, we can get those back. But it is the memories that you cannot replace; [the children's] baby clothes from when I took them from the hospital, our wedding pictures, a lot of our photo albums. It was really sad to see everything we have go up in flames like that."
Even before the fire trucks arrived, people Ricardo barely knew began showing up in support.
"It has been amazing," he said. "They didn't even know me, and [my sergeants] were there in an instant saying, 'don't worry, we'll take care of you.' One is letting us use his truck, and my platoon sergeant took care of Max while we lived in a hotel for a few days."
Donations began flowing into the battalion, the whole community wanting to help out the Family.
"Even the uniform I am wearing right now was donated," Ricardo said. "People from all over the place were coming out, and I don't think we would be able to see all that support in the civilian world."
The Family is doing what they can to keep life normal.
Soon, they will move into a permanent home just down the road from what is left of their charred former life.
"They gave us options to move other places, but we said, 'if that's available, we'd like to stay there,'" Ricardo explained. "It's going to be tough because we can see where our house burned down, but the neighbors were so supportive and the school is so close."
Community support is something the Ortiz' Family now realizes is almost invaluable.
"It was tough, but if anything it is going to make us stronger as a Family," he said. "You can only learn from this situation. We've learned to appreciate our neighbors. We are so grateful they have been so supportive."
Now, Ricardo said he also has a new appreciation for young children.
"When I see a little kid now, I think, 'he/she might be a hero,'" he explained. "That little child might have saved a life. Sometimes you think they aren't capable of it. But we definitely can say Chaila saved our lives. It's been quite a journey throughout the whole thing, but the important thing is that we're together and we can definitely come back from this."