Brushing aside charred upholstery and shards of glass, Maria Avila takes a deep breath and holds back tears.
The pungent aroma of smoke lingers as a reminder of the holidays and of a Christmas Eve her family will never forget.
After an out-of-control chimney fire destroyed the family’s home Christmas Eve morning, off Texas Highway 31 between Tyler and Chandler, the family of four thanked the American Red Cross for helping them regain their lives.
“They’re keeping my family from being homeless,” Mrs. Avila said.
Mrs. Avila, 28, accepted a $1,000 check Thursday from the American Red Cross to help cover their first month’s rent in a new home.
Since the fire, they have been living with her mother, Berta Luviano, on Travis Street in Tyler and hope to move into their new home on Texas Highway 155 by Saturday.
As Mrs. Avila and her sons, Nicholas, 9, and Andrew, 6, inspected the shell of their old home nearly a week after the fire.
The boys buried their faces in their mother and pointed to where the Christmas tree was, where their rooms were and the charred bits of their unopened Christmas toys.
“It’s sad,” was all the boys could say.
After the fire, the American Red Cross donated clothing and necessities to the Avila family, helped purchase food and is now helping them cover their first month’s rent in a new home.
The Red Cross even made arrangements for the children to receive Christmas presents.
“We were going to have a bad Christmas,” Nicholas said. “But then the Red Cross came.”
She and her husband, Nicholas, 34, were preparing last week for one of their family’s biggest Christmas celebrations. The menu included 30 chickens, dozens of desserts and food totaling more than $600. Everyone had a present under the tree.
“I imagined everything was going to be so beautiful,” Mrs. Avila said. “In the blink of an eye, everything was gone.”
The boys went out with their father to go “deer hunting” Christmas Eve morning. Mrs. Avila said it was more of just walking in the woods to get them out of the house.
She went to Walmart to pick up a few lastminute groceries for Christmas and left her best friend and sister-in-law in the kitchen to do prep-work for the grandiose meal.
On her way back home on Texas 31, Mrs. Avila saw clouds of smoke and fire.
“I knew we had the chimney lit,” Mrs. Avila said. “I said, ‘God, don’t let it be my house.'”
When she arrived home, fire trucks from Tyler, Noonday, Flint/Gresham and Bullard fire departments already were there.
She could not find her oldest son, who went to the neighbor’s house for safety.
“I was just devastated,” she said. “I just imagined him burning in the flames and screaming for me.”
The call came in at 9:46 a.m. and cleared at 10:16 a.m.
Cracked bricks and concrete in the chimney exposed the flames to kindling in the house’s wooden frame, according to the fire marshal’s report.
Despite her friend and sister-in-law’s efforts to extinguish the out-of-control blaze, the attic caught fire, ceilings collapsed and smoke became so thick that they were unable to save anything.
Her family had rented the four-bedroom house for more than two years but never invested in renters insurance.
Smith County Fire Department estimated there was $70,000 worth of damage.
Mrs. Avila is a stay-at-home mom, and her husband works at Tyler Concrete Services.
The children have nightmares about the fire, dreaming they might burn, Mrs. Avila said.
“We just hug them and tell them nothing will happen,” she said.
The boys will start at Winona Elementary School in January. Nicholas is nervous about finishing third grade at the new school, and Andrew is worried about how he will get his things from his old kindergarten classroom.
Out of the whole experience, Mrs. Avila is thankful for her family and their safety.
“We thank God for all we have,” Mrs. Avila said.
Published December 31
Tyler Morning Telegraph