By Jonathan Sandstrom
Milca Pinero of New Britain was involved in a home fire in February 2017, consuming a large portion of the building and her third-floor apartment. Had it not been for a helpful New Britain police officer, some neighbors, and American Red Cross volunteers, she may not have survived.
She, her sixteen-year-old nephew Milton and their Maltese puppy, Kiki managed to escape the burning building.
Thanks to the Red Cross, they are on their way to recovery. “This past month has been about us trying to tough it out, get the help we need and do the things we have to do,” Milca says about the ordeal from February. “I haven’t allowed myself to feel the things I’m supposed to feel so I can stay strong.”
Thinking back to the terrible day, Milca is thankful the building had a working smoke alarm. It was what alerted Milton to the potential hazard.
The day started innocently enough. It was a nice winter morning and Milton and Milca were having a good time with their third-floor neighbors. They had a domino game going.
Then Milton and the neighbor heard the fire alarm. Milca was on crutches from a previous injury and couldn’t run. Milton and the neighbor ran to the hallway and
downstairs where they realized the fire was spreading and they needed to get out. They came back to get Milca and the other family and told them to get out of the building.
In Milca’s apartment, she and Milton started panicking. They moved to the front door but smoke had already filled the hallway, cutting off the escape route.
They tried the back door but the hallway was smoke-filled too. “We looked out the window and saw flames coming out of the first-floor window and they were rising,” Milca said. “We were thinking ‘Oh my goodness, what do we do now?’”
Milca’s bedroom was full of smoke. She had called 911 and was screaming for help while she and Milton worked their way through the rooms of the apartment, looking for a safe place. “I could hear someone yelling help was on the way. We could hear the fire engines and everything, but they were helping our neighbors next door,” Milca recalled. “We could hear all the commotion and were screaming for someone to help us.”
The situation in the apartment worsened. Smoke was getting too thick to breathe so they moved into the kitchen. Smoke was billowing up through the baseboard heaters there too. They tried the bathroom next, but no luck. Then they went into another bedroom where it was less smoky and easier to breathe.
Relief from the smoke was short-lived. That’s when Milton made the decision and said “‘Mom, we have to jump’. “I told him, ‘You jump. I can’t because I have an injury. I’ll toss the puppy out the window to you. Save yourself and the puppy and get help.”
By then, nobody could see or hear them anymore. Milton jumped out the window and Milca wrapped Kiki in a blanket and tossed her out the window as well.
Alone in the apartment, reality began to set in for Milca. “I kind of gave up because I knew there was no way I could jump with a leg injury and crutches.”
She knew if she tried to follow Milton, she could be paralyzed and possibly die. So Milca begged him: “Just go. I love you and tell your sister I love her. Tell the family I love everybody.” Milca felt she had made peace with God.
Milton refused to take no for an answer. “He said ‘If you don’t come, I’ll come up there and die with you. We’ll die together’.
Deciding to jump was hard, but logic quickly won out. “It was a big mental battle,” Milca
said. “I had to do it.” She realized it wasn’t her time to perish. She sat on the windowsill, dropped her crutches out and jumped.
She landed on her back on the first-floor porch roof. Then the New Britain officer and some of the other men from the community came over with a ladder to help her get to the ground. “They set up the ladder and were telling me to come,” she said. The ladder almost fell when I climbed on, but by then I didn’t care.”
Once she was on the ground, she and Milton received medical help and were taken to UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital where they stayed for a couple of days, getting treatment for their injuries.
While in the hospital, Milca and Milton kept worrying “We’ve lost everything, where are we going now? Where will we live?”
The next day, the Red Cross walked in. “I’ll never forget these two awesome people. They came in with bags and paperwork and said ‘We’re here to help’. We didn’t have to do anything,” Milca said. “When I got discharged, I was taken straight to a handicapped-accessible room at a nearby Red Roof hotel. The Red Cross did that for us. We’re very thankful for their help. I want to make sure people know it was something the Red Cross did for us and we are very grateful. They took care of us!”
When Milca saw the same officer who helped them after their jump out of the apartment a few days later, she was happy she could thank him for his efforts.
Looking back on the whole experience, Milca says, “The Red Cross provided a moment of renewed hope. Things were going to be ok. I tell my son every night we are here first because of God, and secondly because of the Red Cross. They are taking care of us.”
Kiki also survived the ordeal. Pets are not allowed in Milca’s new apartment, but she is safe and well with a friend.
Milca had photos of the fire sent to her phone and finds it difficult to view them. One of the photos shows the window she jumped through. It will be forever etched in her memory. They serve as a reminder of how real it all was.
She’s also been back to the scene, knowing she had to face the reality eventually. The experience of seeing the building again was traumatic. “I cried like there was no tomorrow. For a moment, it was paralyzing and shocking. But then it was over. I know I have to move on.”
And every night Milton and I are reminding ourselves that the Red Cross is around to keep us safe.
To learn more about how you can help people like Milca and her family, visit redcross.org/volunteer.