Dark smoke billowed from the one-story home in Falls Church, Va., and Nicholle Harris-Depaz feared that her grandfather lay somewhere inside, helpless and dying. The 12-year-old suddenly decided she had to do more than simply watch.
Her relatives had searched for 70-year-old Victor Depaz, but they could not find him in the stinging blackness. So Nicholle broke from her great-aunt’s grasp and forced her way inside.
At first, the smoke drove her back, burning her eyes and lungs. But then Nicholle clamped her hand over her mouth and struggled through the door again.
“I thought grandfather was going to die,” she said. “I thought he was burning.”
Through the smoke, beside the Christmas tree, she saw what looked like a pile of clothes. She reached down and heard a mumble or groan.
It was “Papi.”
She screamed for her great-uncle, who dragged the older man to safety. As he lay on the ground, Nicholle’s great-aunt, Libia Villacorta, administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
There will be no Christmas on Thursday in the Depaz home, in the Pimmit Hills section of Fairfax County, Va.
About the only thing standing after Tuesday night’s fire is the Christmas tree, its artificial branches melted, its decorations singed and the presents underneath burned to cinders.
But despite the devastation, the Depaz family had a miracle to celebrate at midnight Mass: the rescue of the family patriarch by his asthmatic granddaughter.
“I don’t think I’m a hero,” said Nicholle, a seventh-grader at Longfellow Middle School. “I love my grandpa, and if you really love someone, you would go in.”
The Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department plans to give Citizen Valor awards to Nicholle; her grandmother, Vertha Depaz, 60; and her great-uncle, Amadeo Villacorta, 53.
“What she did is an awesome feat,” said Lt. Michael P. Regan, of the department. “Her persistence and desire to find him saved his life. This man was very close to death. He was unconscious, which means he was not too far from cardiac arrest.”
The fire marshal ruled that an unattended, lit candle caused the fire, which was discovered by the family as they returned to the home about 11 p.m. after some last-minute Christmas shopping.
When Vertha Depaz opened the front door, thick smoke enveloped them. Nicholle’s grandfather had stayed behind as the family went shopping, and his wife immediately began to scream his name.
“Victor, Victor, where are you?” she cried in Spanish.
There was no response.
Both Vertha and Amadeo charged through the smoke, but they could not see Victor and stumbled out the back door.
While Nicholle’s 11-year-old sister ran to a neighbor’s house to call 911, Nicholle rushed into the smoke.
Within four minutes of the 911 call, Engine Co. 13 responded, and the family was taken to the hospital. Nicholle and her grandmother were treated for smoke inhalation and released. Victor Depaz remained at Inova Fairfax Hospital in good condition last night.
“The doctors said he will be OK,” said Janett Depaz, his daughter and Nicholle’s mother.
The Depaz family, who emigrated from Peru in 1980, said that they have fire insurance but that the loss of the home is crushing.
Wednesday, when Nicholle got to see her grandfather at the hospital, he told her, “Nicky, you’re going to write a book on this someday.”
Janett Depaz said her daughters were staying with their grandparents because she is working late hours at her job as an accountant. Most of the girls’ clothes have been ruined. The detritus of the fire - couches, school books, toys - was piled in a sodden heap at the back of the house.
“On the one hand, Christmas is destroyed and all the kids’ presents are gone,” said Libia Villacorta. “On the other hand, Victor is alive. And we are very, very thankful to God for that.”