I wanted to save my family, but I felt starved of air and could not breathe. The fire kept pushing me closer to the window. Hoping to get out, I looked down at the flower bed in our garden just as the blinds caught fire. My house, my family – everything was gone. The fire began to sear my back.
Warning: This story contains graphic details about a fire that took the lives of five individuals including three children, and the experience of the lone survivor.
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — On February 17, 1994, at 16 years old, I snuck into the bathroom to have a cigarette, as I always did. That night, my mother, father, two little brothers, and their friend made for a full house. I sprayed deodorant to cover up the scent and wished my parents goodnight. Retiring to my room, I fell asleep while listening to music.
Suddenly, I woke up to an intense heat engulfing me. My body was drenched in sweat, and I struggled to breathe. The air felt suffocating. I looked around frantically, attempting to find a way out of the flames. Amid the chaos, I heard my brother Fernando’s desperate screams: “I’m burning, I’m burning!” My mom started to shout, pleading for someone to help her children.
During that time, my father worked at shoe factory but seemed unaware of the intense issues happening there. Then, one his business partners threatened our family. As a teenager, I knew little about his work, and we ignored the threats at first. We assumed this man’s anger would dissipate. Then, on that night in February, as we slept soundly, tragedy struck our home, and the threat became real.
In my room, I lost all strength but managed to open a window as I gasped for air. Terror consumed me. A panicked neighbor spotted me from outside and screamed, urging me to escape as fast as I could. “The entire house is burning,” he said. It felt unreal – like a terrible nightmare playing out around me.
I glanced out of my window toward my brother Fernando’s. A fierce blue flame shot out of it, resembling a blowtorch. Suddenly, a deafening noise resonated through the house, as if everything was collapsing. I removed my shirt, took a deep breath, and shifted my gaze toward the door of my room. I saw a light seeping from underneath it. At that moment, all I wanted was to be in my parents’ arms, safe and sound. Fear and terror gripped me with an intensity I had never felt before.
I covered my mouth with a cloth and made my way to my parents’ room. The door looked as if it had exploded. A flame ignited my hair and threw me to the ground. As I attempted to extinguish the fire on my head, I witnessed a spark rapidly crawling up the ceiling, infiltrating the closet, and devouring the walls. Panic surged through me. I screamed, pleading for them to come searching for me. I shouted their names repeatedly, my voice growing weaker and weaker. Nobody answered. The noise grew louder as glass shattered and objects came crashing down.
I wanted to save my family, but I felt starved of air and could not breathe. The fire kept pushing me closer to the window. Hoping to get out, I looked down at the flower bed in our garden just as the blinds caught fire. My house, my family – everything was gone. The fire began to sear my back. Everything was burning, and I knew I would be next. I took a deep breath in and jumped out of the window. I reached a neighboring terrace and stayed there, hanging onto a ledge. The neighbor advised me not to jump onto the sidewalk, as it had also been sprayed with gasoline. Thankfully, help arrived not long after that, and they rescued me. We started shouting so my parents would know I made it out. The firefighters attempted to enter from the back of the house.
Outside of the house, I screamed and screamed for my parents. I just wanted them to know I was fine, and help was on its way; but the flames came from everywhere, and I heard no response. It did not occur to me; I may be the only survivor. More help arrived, and they gave me oxygen as they loaded me onto the ambulance. Soon after, they found my mother’s body in the bathroom inside the tub, holding my nine-year-old brother Fernando in her arms. My father died holding onto the window grate, trying to rip it off to save the family. My 14-year-old brother Alejandro and his friend Nico died completely charred, next to each other on the bed.
After the tragedy, I found it extremely difficult to learn to live without them and to process what happened. For a long time, I lived in denial as a coping mechanism. I felt like any minute, I would wake up from the nightmare. It seemed unreal. “How did this happen,” I would think, “And why?” The images haunted me for years, preventing sleep. My grandmother and I went through the public trial and the person responsible received a sentence of life in prison. When the verdict came, it felt like that stage of life ended and we could begin to grieve. Justice had finally been served. For a long time, I felt so guilty for leaving my family behind, struggling to comprehend why I didn’t do more to help them.
My grandmother became my savior. She gave me emotional support, a home, clothing, and taught me to live without hatred and resentment. Fifteen years later, when I was finally living a somewhat normal life, the phone rang. I heard the voice of Fructuoso Álvarez González, the man who burned our house down. Even before the fire, my brothers and I called him “the monster” because he made a scary voice everytime he called. That morning, he threatened me on the phone, and my life came crashing down around me.
I immediately contacted my lawyer to find out which prison he was in. I could not understand how he had found me considering he was serving a life sentence. He murdered my entire family, including three children. I struggled to believe anyone would ever set him free. However, to my dismay, I discovered he had been released from prison. My life became a living hell as I relied on constant police surveillance, 24 hours a day. By then I had my own family and feared for their safety.
Even when Fructuoso was rearrested in 2011, I remained petrified. We later learned when the psychologists in the prison assessed him, they determined he was a psychopath, devoid of remorse, and he harbored significant anger toward me. The very idea he remained alive terrified me every day and night.
On April 30, 2023, Fructuoso Álvarez González died in the Ezeiza prison. I could finally breathe again. Looking back, I cannot fathom how I managed to survive my trauma. After everything that happened, the love I received from the people around me served as an anchor. It gave me a vital source of strength over years. With Fructuoso’s death, I can finally live in peace.
During this time, I received messages from other victims of crimes; individuals who endured similar situations at the hands of other criminals. Although the details of our cases were different, the treatment they experienced in the courts, and their search for justice, mirrored my own. I began to wonder, “Why are so many dangerous people being released from prison without a second thought about the victims?”
It began to dawn on me, I needed do something. I began reaching out to relatives of victims, and together, we pushed for the passage of a law known as the Law for the Protection of Crime Victims. This legislation ensures that the rights of victims are respected. Although we need even more improvements within the justice system, these small victories give me and other victims the strength to keep going.
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