Fam­ily slow­ing put­ting lives back to­gether af­ter fire

Orlando Sentinel - - LOCAL & STATE - By Bianca Padró Oca­sio

The first piece of fur­ni­ture to go up in flames at Joalexis Rivera’s home was a bed, fire­fight­ers said. Then the pil­lows and the sheets. In a mat­ter of min­utes — Rivera says it felt like less than 10 — the fire had spread to the closet and turned his clothes to ash.

Rivera’s wife, Mari­bel Rivera, had stored Christ­mas gifts — in­clud­ing a new pair of shoes for him — un­der­neath the mat­tress, be­fore a burn­ing can­dle that was left on a nearby night­stand also con­sumed them, along with sev­eral rooms in their east Orange County home on Dec. 16.

“That day I felt like streams of hot water were com­ing down [my neck], I yelled so much,” said Mari­bel Rivera, 55. “Ma­te­rial things are re­place­able, but it was about my fam­ily. Where are we go­ing to go?”

While she was run­ning er­rands down in Kis­sim­mee the day of the in­ci­dent, Joalexis Rivera was work­ing in the back­yard of his home on Spoon­bill Av­enue, tucked west of Gold­en­rod Road and south of Curry Ford Road. His 27-year-old son, who has a phys­i­cal dis­abil­ity that af­fects his feet, told him his bed­room had caught on fire.

Joalexis Rivera tried to ex­tin­guish the fire him­self, un­suc­cess­fully, so he ran in­side to carry out his 90-year-old mother-in-law, who uses a wheel­chair, be­fore the fire spread through the home.

The fam­ily is orig­i­nally from Puerto Rico, and they moved to Tampa in 2009. They re­lo­cated to Or­lando and rented their home a lit­tle over a year ago, where Joalexis Rivera works for a re­mod­el­ing com­pany, re­pair­ing cab­i­nets and paint­ing homes.

“It’s been 10 years of sac­ri­fices,” said Joalexis Rivera, 41.

The fam­ily has been liv­ing at a Wood­springs Suites ho­tel room for the past three weeks. On Thurs­day, Global Mat­tress, a lo­cal com­pany, do­nated four mat-

tresses with box springs for the fam­ily that they are keep­ing at a stor­age unit while they find a new place to live.

“We don’t sleep at night. All you think is: ‘OK, I’m sleep­ing here now. But what’s go­ing to hap­pen to­mor­row?” Mari­bel Rivera said.

When the fire be­gan to roar about 3 p.m. that day, Joalexis Rivera at­tempted to put down the flames, swat­ting them with his hands and feet out of in­stinct. He suf­fered mi­nor in­juries on his arms, legs and nose.

One of their three dogs, 2-year-old Benji, ran bark­ing, back and forth from their house to their neigh­bors’ home and alerted them of the emer­gency.

Orange County Fire Res­cue de­ter­mined in a re­port that the flame from the can­dle was too close to com­bustible ma­te­ri­als, which ul­ti­mately caused the fire.

Ilia Tor­res, re­gional di­rec­tor of the Puerto Rico Fed­eral Af­fairs Ad­min­is­tra­tion, said she found out about the fam­ily’s sit­u­a­tion through one of Joalexis Rivera’s co­work­ers. She con­tacted Global Mat­tress to see if there was any­thing the com­pany could do to help the Riveras.

“We didn’t hes­i­tate for a sec­ond in find­ing any re­sources to help the fam­ily,” Tor­res said on Thurs­day. She said PRFAA helped re­place their vi­tal doc­u­ments and the City of Or­lando’s His­panic Of­fice for Lo­cal As­sis­tance do­nated fur­ni­ture.

“Even af­ter ev­ery­thing hap­pened, when we got to the ho­tel,” Mari­bel Rivera said, “I asked, ‘Joalexis, didn’t you see the gifts I left un­der the bed?’ And he said: ‘No. The fire took it all.’”

BIANCA PADRÓ OCA­SIO/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Joalexis and Mari­bel Rivera lost most of their be­long­ings to a fire in their east Orange County home shortly be­fore Christ­mas. They have been liv­ing at a Wood­springs Suites ho­tel with two more rel­a­tives.

BIANCA PADRÓ OCA­SIO/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Mat­tresses are do­nated to Joalexis and Mari­bel Rivera, who lost most of their be­long­ings to a fire in their east Orange County home shortly be­fore Christ­mas.

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