Hyattsville Community Comes Together to Help Family Ripped Apart by Fire
HYATTSVILLE, Md. - Stuart Eisenberg remembers when the Hernandez girls used to come home from school. He could hear them walking up the street to their 40th Avenue house in Hyattsville.
"I would hear giggling girls. It was the sisters. They would be coming back from school with their friends. There'd be silliness all around," he said.
But on Jan. 19, the laughter stopped. The Hernandez house caught fire in the pre-dawn hours. Of the seven members of their extended family in the house that night, only five escaped.
Nine-year-old Kimberly Hernandez was rescued by firefighters but died from her injuries a few hours later. Her sister, 13-year-old Kelly Hernandez, died five days later in Baltimore's Shock Trauma Center.
The death of the two girls shook the community and mobilized many to help the family, including neighbors and members of the Hyattsville police and fire departments.
The girls' parents, Marcos Antonio Zelaya, 37, and Ena Hernandez, 32, and their sisters, Melanie, 13, and Maria, 4, survived the fire. Juan Carlos Portillo, Marcos Zelaya's brother, also made it out.
The blaze destroyed the house where the family had been living for the past four years, creating an estimated $350,000 in damage to the home's structure and content, according to fire officials.
Eisenberg, 47, a close neighbor of the Hernandezes and a former president of the Hyattsville City Council, set up a relief fund for the family. The executive director of the nonprofit Hyattsville Community Development Corp. said the fund has raised $30,000 so far.
The fund has received donations from places as far away as Alaska, Georgia, California, Texas and Connecticut.
"There's been a massive outpouring of support," Eisenberg said. "They were very loved in the community."
But he said there's still much more needed.
"This is a family that has lost all their possessions," he said. The inside of the house is completely burnt, their car is damaged and the Hernandezes need to pay hospital bills, he added.
The Hernandezes were paying a mortgage on the house. They hope to collect some money from insurance, said Liliana Zelaya, 26, Marcos Zelaya’s niece.
Parents Ena Hernandez and Marcos Zelaya don’t have health insurance, his niece said. The girls did, but their parents are unsure about how much it’s going to cover, she said.
For the time being, the family is living with Liliana Zelaya in Silver Spring.
The money raised so far "is only a fraction of what’s going to be required to stabilize their family over time,” Eisenberg said.
The cause of the fire is still being investigated, but investigators said the fire was accidental and likely caused by an electrical source, said Mark Brady, Prince George’s County Fire Department spokesman.
Kathryn Foxhall is one of the family’s neighbors who is trying to help. The 61-year-old woman lives a few blocks from the home and is still trying to come to terms with the tragedy. “It’s going to take a long time, even realizing what has happened, let alone dealing with it,” she said.
Foxhall is taking care of Pumpkin Pie, the family dog, a 20-pound Lhasa apso. In the confusion that came after the fire, the dog was taken to a shelter by animal control. She spent 10 days there before Foxhall took over her care.
Foxhall says the response of people living in the neighborhood has been amazing. “I think this neighborhood is closer than most,” she said.
On Jan. 29, neighbors organized a vigil in front of the house. They placed a white cross at the entrance to the porch next to a small statue of the Virgin Mary. They tied a baby-blue scarf to the cross.
“That was Kimberly’s favorite color,” Eisenberg said.
A second, larger statue of the Virgin Mary stands on the grass, next to the stairs of the burnt house. The statue was damaged while firefighters were extinguishing the blaze. Neighbors fixed it and restored it to its place.
Sgt. Suzie Johnson, 44, of the Hyattsville Police Department, is also raising funds for the relief fund, and detectives at the department are collecting clothes, pillows and furniture. Johnson helped organize a benefit Jan. 29 at nearby Northwestern High School.
“They are good people,” Johnson said of the Hernandezes. Her daughter knew the girls from school.
Kimberly was a fourth-grader at Hyattsville Elementary School and Kelly was an eight-grader at Hyattsville Middle School. Her twin sister, Melanie, went to school with her.
Her parents changed Melanie to a school in Silver Spring and are considering moving to that area, said Liliana Zelaya. “She doesn’t want to go back to her old school because her friends ask her about her twin sister,” she said.
Their classmates have been deeply affected by their losses. A Facebook page set up in the girls’ honor had more than 250 fans and more than 30 posts remembering them.
Bart Lawrence, 38, a member of the Hyattsville Elementary School PTA, where Kimberly was a student, said the school organized an event Jan. 28, in which students made cards for the girls and presented a video.
“The event … was terribly sad. It was just sad. There’s nothing else to say about it really,” Lawrence said.
“Everybody is upset clearly,” said Prince George’s County Council member Will Campos, D-Hyattsville.
“Everybody came together. There was a great deal of help,” he said.
Campos said he will participate in the D.C. Fire Hockey Annual Charity Tournament, which will be celebrated in April and will raise funds for the family.
The Rev. Vidal Rivas, 46, said more than 500 people came to the girls’ first public viewing Jan. 29 at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Hyattsville. It was Kimberly’s birthday. She would have turned 10.
Rivas, rector at St. Matthew’s, said the church was overflowing with supporters; many people stood in the hallway and on the sides of the church to participate.
The ceremony lasted all night, in the tradition of El Salvador, where the parents were born.
Rivas is in constant contact with the parents, giving them spiritual support.
“(I tell them that) we as humans can’t conceive death. But if we start viewing death through our spiritual beliefs, we understand that death is not the end,” he said.
“It just brings us closer to God.”
Interviews with Vidal Rivas and Liliana Zelaya were conducted in Spanish and translated for this story.