Larry LaRue

Family of eight scrambles, has no time for self-pity after Lakewood house fire

Bad news always travels fast.

Last week, Olga Rodriguez got a call from her 17-year-old son in a panic. Their Lakewood home was on fire. Olga immediately called her husband, Marco Rodriguez, a custodian at Mann Middle School.

“I was two minutes away from the house,” Marco said.

When he pulled up front, West Pierce Fire & Rescue crews were already fighting the flames, and Marco’s son was getting medical treatment for burns on both hands. He was in shock — and horrified at what he had done.

As the boy explained to investigators, he was home alone, cold, and decided to light a fire in the fireplace.

“He put lighter fluid on the wood to start it,” assistant fire marshal Hallie McCurdy said. “Typically, lighter fluid on anything will accelerate the fire, and it got away from him. It spread quickly to the carpet, the couch …”

The Clover Park High School student grabbed a small fire extinguisher and found it wasn’t enough. He grabbed towels and tried to fight the flames, burning his hands.

From the street, Marco, Olga and their son watched as firefighters stopped the fire on the main floor. The basement wasn’t burned, but the upstairs rooms suffered major smoke damage.

Still, the house they’ve called home for the last year was uninhabitable. And that meant eight people were suddenly homeless.

There were Marco and Olga, and two of their sons still in school, David and Matthew. An older son, Alex, had moved into the basement with his family – wife Jessica and babies Angelina and Roman. They are saving for a house of their own.

Still, when Marco arrived, his first thought wasn’t of the damage or what it would mean to his family. The whole way home, he said, he was thinking: Don’t let anything bad happen to my son.

“Family is always first,” he said. “We got there and he was so upset. I told him not to worry about it, that accidents happen.

“My wife hugged him and started crying.”

The house is owned by and sits on the property of the Lakewood United Methodist Church. Marco, who attends Saturday services of the Spanish-speaking Tacoma Seventh Day Adventist church, works at the Methodist church part time.

“I do my work there before and after the service, and I attend the service,” said Marco, who came to the Northwest from California nearly 20 years ago. “I’m probably an honorary Methodist.”

The Rev. Matt Gorman values the church’s relationship with the Rodriguez family.

“About a year ago, (Marco) became our caretaker, then our custodian,” Gorman said. “It was a work exchange for the house. Marco is a good man, the family is a great family.

“With the fire, we lost our ability to pay him.”

The Methodists are working with their insurance company, hoping to find a way to pay for temporary housing for the Rodriguez family while the house is repaired, which will take months.

The night of the Oct. 15 fire, all eight family members spent the night in the apartment of another family member. Clearly, they were far too many to remain there.

“Half of us moved in with my sister-in-law in Tacoma,” Marco said.

Over the days after the fire, the family found just how much they’d lost.

“I lost all my clothes,” Marco said. “The boys didn’t lose all of theirs, and we have washed everything twice, but it still smells like smoke. Alex had bought a new refrigerator for us a few weeks ago.

“It’s gone. So is all our furniture … .”

Marco, however, has neither the time nor inclination to feel sorry for himself. Everyone in the family is healthy. His son’s burned hands did not require hospitalization.

On Monday, Marco returned to Mann school. His co-workers immediately asked what they could do.

At the moment, not much.

“The school is willing to help, but Marco said until he knows more about where he’ll be living and what he needs, he’d rather wait,” said Kim Prentice, spokeswoman for Clover Park School District. “He doesn’t have anywhere to put anything we might give him at the moment.

“Marco is well-liked, and people want to dive in and help.”

The Red Cross already has helped, giving the family money with which it bought new clothes and food. Marco continues to work two jobs, Olga another.

“I’ve tried to hold it all in,” Marco said. “At church Saturday, it all came flooding out and I started to cry. People have been kind. The other day, a man from our church drove over and gave me $20.

“We’ll be fine. But that man really touched me.”