Caye Caulker fire claims life


Elmer Chub, a native of the village of Jan Jose in the Orange Walk District, died on Independence Day when his apartment burnt down in the village of Caye Caulker. Fourteen residents: eight men, three women, and three children, who were his fellow tenants in the apartment lost all their personal belongings in the blaze.
The fire is believed to have happened several minutes after midnight on Saturday, September 21st. Many Caye Caulker Residents went to the island’s park to enjoy the fireworks display, which was planned as entertainment and was scheduled to begin at midnight to mark the beginning of Independence Day.
The island’s residents were enjoying the event for a short while until everyone started seeing the smoke and the flames coming from an area of Avenida Langosta. When they went to investigate, they found Nando’s Golf Cart Rentals and Apartments completely engulfed in flames.
Seleny Villanueva-Pott, the Chairlady of the Village told the press that she then personally visited the small island office for Belize Electricity Limited. She implored the person on duty to turn off power to that general location. The fire had destroyed power lines, and live wires were sparking around the fire. That made it dangerous for any firefighting effort to even begin. Unfortunately, the ranking BEL employee had to get permission from his superiors in Belize City. That permission was not immediately forthcoming, and according to the Chairlady, over 20 minutes of valuable time passed with the fire being simply left alone for fear of electrical hazards.
According to the Chairlady, the BEL employee turned off the power, but instead of focusing on only one area, he shut off the electricity for the entire island. That later created a different problem because BWS was unable to supply the island with water in the wake of an island blackout.
Fidel Magaña, the property owner and landlord, told the press that earlier that evening, he and his employees/tenants were socializing. He went to bed, and when he woke up, the choking smell of smoke was in his room on the second floor of his complex. His home was burning down all around him, and he was trapped.
Magaña explained, “When I was in the building, and they called me. I wasn’t hearing really because maybe the smoke that got into me was already taking me down. When they knocked on the window, and I get up, and I remember when I looked around, I saw the smoke, and I couldn’t breathe. I said, well, I’m dead. I gave up. I nearly lay down on the bed, but my little nephew shouted at me, ‘Don’t do that! Wait’ But then, I was conscious [of the fact] that I can’t breathe. So, I saw the hole in the window. I pushed my head through it, and it was right from through there that they took me out.”
Shortly after first responders were able to rescue Magaña, his home, his apartment complex, and his son’s golf cart business were destroyed.
One of Magaña’s tenanst, Elmer Chub, died in the blaze, and it was not known that he perished until the next day. That’s when the islanders were helping to clean up the rubble left after the fire completely consumed the wooden structure.
Shawn Herrera, his fellow tenant who also lost everything in the fire, explained that Chub and several of the other tenants were socializing and enjoying a few alcoholic drinks that evening, going into the night hours. There was consensus that everyone would go watch the fireworks, but Chub decided to go to bed so that he could sober up. Herrera and others believe that while he was under the effects of the alcohol, he became trapped in his room which burnt down with the rest of the apartment complex.
?Island residents had only nice things to say about Chub who went out there several months ago looking for a job. He was hired by Fernando Magaña, the owner of the golf cart business, and he worked as a mechanic. The fellow residents describe Chub as a friendly and helpful person who was always willing to help.
Japy Perez, another tenant who lost everything in the fire, told the press that he is very grateful to his boss’s wife for lending him a golf cart for the evening. That allowed him to convince his wife to take their six-month-old baby to go and enjoy the fireworks. He said that his wife prefers to stay at home, and if she did so that evening, he suspects that he would have lost her and their baby to the blaze.
So, after the first responding residents and firefighters were able to safely address the burning house, about 50 to 75 residents formed a bucket brigade, and the started putting out sections of the fire that they could adequately tackle. Their community-minded spirit caused them to focus on the emergency at hand, but in their frenzied haste, they damaged one of the island’s fire trucks. They believed that brute force would activate the valve mechanism for one of the truck’s pumps, and so someone kicked it multiple times. Someone actually went for a hammer and struck another lever for the pump on the truck, and eventually broke it. A backup truck, which was nearby, had to be activated, and with the joint effort of the community and the firefighters, the fire was safely put out. Unfortunately, the building was destroyed, but the entire block was saved because all other structures nearby were all made of concrete.
To assist the fire victims, the National Emergency Management Organization activated the island’s Community Disaster Response Team. Within 24 hours after the fire, NEMO was able to provide for a few of their essential needs. Bedding, food packages, cooking equipment, and a hygiene kit was distributed to the victims. These items were transported to the island through the kind assistance of the Belize Defense Force and the Belize Coast Guard.
Villanueva-Pott, told the press that they are using this tragedy as a learning experience about how to improve the island’s disaster response mechanism. She explained that the council has agreed with the management of BEL that a team of linesmen will be made available to immediately respond to any future disaster where the electricity company’s input is essential.
?Pott said, “This is a tourist destination, and we have to ensure that things are being done by protocol because we do not want to have losses of lives. This is the first for Caye Caulker, and we really wouldn’t want to have a repeat of it going forward.”