A grieving mother who has been keeping watch over her children’s hospital beds left the burn unit for the first time in nearly two weeks Friday to memorialize the third child she lost in a tragic house fire.
Juana Vasquez said she has just been living day by day since Nov. 30, when an overnight blaze claimed the life of her 12-year-old son Fernando Castro and critically burned her two youngest, 3-year-old Esmeralda and 5-year-old Luis.
"Just holding on. I try to be strong because I still have my three older ones and I gotta be strong for the two little ones, so it's hard,” she told reporters Friday. “I’m trying to mourn for my son so it's like I’m split in three right now.”
But Vasquez’s outing Friday was a worthy one. She attended the Winter Wonderland Holiday Festival at her son’s school, Millennial Tech Middle School, where faculty and students planted a pink lemonade tree in Fernando’s memory.
They also presented Vasquez with a wooden plaque that matches the bronze one to be placed on a boulder on campus.
“I’m happy that there's something that's always going to be reminding me of his life,” the mother said. “He was just full of life. He was very content. Even though he was autistic and slow, he tried to communicate with everybody.”
She remembered how every day, Fernando – whom many people called Nano – would turn to her and give her a big thumbs up before getting on the bus.
“He was always an angel,” she said. “He was happy; he'd always welcome anybody in; he was very huggable.”
Left without her middle child, Vasquez jumps between grief and worry for her children in the burn unit.
The house fire left Esmeralda with burns over about 40 percent of her body, and Luis was burned on about 70 percent of his body.
Vasquez explained an auntie and her boyfriend were staying with the children the night of the blaze. Now, the couple feels the guilt of a child’s death and the injuries of two others.
“I keep just keep telling them it's just a tragic accident; there was nothing they could do,” Vasquez said. “The fire was in the middle of the house. They were on one side and the kids were on the other side. There was nothing they could do.”
The mother said Luis’ condition is more critical. At this point, the family is just waiting for their children to heal. The doctors said each could need more than 80 operations between now and the age of 18 to fully recover, Vasquez told NBC 7.
Getting her through the tragedy, she said, are “prayer, God, not losing my faith. He has a purpose for this and I know my son’s up there. He’s with my mom and with his grandfather.”
Vasquez has also felt an outpouring of love from her community, shown through Friday’s dedication, as well as clothing and money donations.
“I hope the community stays like this,” she said. “It just hurts me that my community, we haven't been this close like we used to, and it kind of hurts me that it takes a tragedy for the community to come together. And I just hope we all stay like this.”
She thanked everyone for their support and said she needs one thing: prayer.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to pay for memorial services, as well as medical costs.