Family Meets Life-Saving Firefighters

A Dec. 23 fire nearly claimed the lives of a grandmother and her grandson

By Jeff Goldblatt
|  Thursday, Feb 16, 2012  |  Updated 11:45 PM CDT
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A Dec. 23, 2011 fire nearly claimed the lives of a grandmother and her grandson.

A Dec. 23, 2011 fire nearly claimed the lives of a grandmother and her grandson.

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Noise.

Angie Alvarado soaks up every second of it these days, the more the better from her 16-month-old son, Frankie.

On Dec. 23, 2011, her whole world almost went silent.

Smoke and flames ripped through the Alvarado’s townhouse in Des Plaines, as the family prepared tamales for their Christmas Eve celebration.

It turns out a stored a gas can in their basement accidentally tipped over. Gas from that can trickled to their furnace.

"It just went, 'Whoof," recalled Alvarado, her hands flying in the air. "It started on the floor and went upward."

Alvarado recalls two explosions. Then darkness.

"This black smoke was coming upward, raging upward. ... I could hear my mother screaming. She kept screaming my name. She kept saying, 'The baby! The baby! Help us! Help us!'"

Neighbors grabbed garden hoses, but the fire was too big at that point. Try as they did, no one could get to Alvarado’s mother, Irma and little Frankie, who were both helpless and trapped in the basement.

"There was one point where I couldn’t hear them anymore and I knew they had passed out," said Alvarado

The first Des Plaines fire engine arrived on scene less than four minutes after getting called.
Things looked bleak at first. Initial reports indicated Frankie and his grandmother were clinging to life.

"I kept praying, closing my eyes," recounted Alvarado. "My mind was just a blur."

Then came two miracles. Crews resuscitated Frankie and Irma and raced them to the hospital. Both were suffering from severe smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.

The pair spent Christmas and the New Year holidays at the hospital.

"At one point when he was no longer sedated, he could see us, and he knew we could no longer help him. And he would reach for us with his little hand and we couldn’t do anything. And that was horrible. That was a horrible feeling," said Alvarado.

Three weeks later, both Frankie and his grandmother went home, miraculously with no external burns. Irma Murillo recalls covering Frankie to protect her daughter’s only child, stressing in broken
English that she’s not the hero.

"Mi dios," she said. "It was God."

Two months later, Alvarado finds herself living with her husband and Frankie in her mother’s townhome and sleeping on a mattress on her floor. She said her days are so hectic, she hadn’t had time to even reach out to the firefighters who saved her family.

"My mom keeps [saying], 'I want to see who rescued me. I want to thank them,'" she said.

NBC Chicago arranged for that reunion to happen.

"Thank you. You saved my life," said a tearful Murillo as she showered her rescuers with hugs and praise.

Next came a surprise: the Des Plaines Professional Firefighters Professional Union presented the family with a $500 check to help pay for clothing and any other needs.

"I will never be able to thank you," said an emotional Alvarado.

Looking back, quick thinking and heroism made this rescue. Firefighters quickly realized after learning that Frankie and his grandmother were trapped in the basement that they didn’t even have the time to run their hoses from their trucks some 50 yards away.

Lt. Michael Copeland and firefighter Robert Prieto raced inside with just the two and a half gallons of water in their fire extinguisher and risked their lives to save two others.

“It’s a split second decision, but yeah, we just did it," recalled Copeland. "It was one of those fire where you look at it, and it’s not, it didn’t look survivable."

"The whole building was full of smoke. Even on the first floor in the kitchen, you couldn’t see your feet, and then it just got worse as you went down in the basement," said Prieto.

Copeland and Prieto said they lucked out on this rescue because they found Frankie and Irma at the foot of the stairs. They say a few seconds made a life-or-death difference, and gave a grandmom and her precious grandson a second chance.

"They always say, 'God has a plan for everybody.' I don’t understand his plan. But I know that I’m going to enjoy my son and my other every day," stressed Alvarado.

In the next few weeks, the Des Plaines City Council plans to honor the firefighters who made this rescue, along with Alvarado’s nephew who raced upstairs from the basement after the fire started and told his family to call 911.

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