October 20, 2006
displaces long-time Westside residents
Fire destroyed Thomas Reyes’ self-built house at 1740 Belleview on Kansas City’s Westside on Oct. 14. The fire originated in the kitchen, just feet away from where the 93-year-old Reyes, his daughter Becky, and nine other members of their extended family were sleeping.
Just moments before the fire began, teachers and students of Christo Del Rey High School at 207 W. Linwood had arrived to survey the house and organize their work for the day. They were planning to make repairs and renovations to Reyes’ house under the auspices of the charitable group Christmas in October. Members of the group were deciding where to stack material and get people to work when the house caught fire.
Reyes’ eight-year-old great granddaughter had just begun cooking breakfast around 8 a.m. when a curtain above the stove caught fire. The flames spread through the house in minutes, allowing the little girl, the high school workers and their supervisors to roust Reyes and his family, and get them out of the house. In all, workers evacuated 12 people from the house.
The fire absorbed the cracks and pops of burning wood in a striking whoosh sound, almost louder than the shouts of firefighters. Some 15 people working with Christmas in October and a group of neighbors stood silently watching the house burn. Their faces showed the disappointment and pain for Reyes. He and his family have been members of the Westside community for decades.
“We just had time to get the family out,” said Raymond Castaneda. “We had just arrived, were there only about five minutes, when we smelled smoke. The fire was through most of the house by the time we got them out.”
Castaneda and his son, Raymond Jr., were disheartened, but happy that no one was hurt. “It’s kind of a miracle,” Raymond Jr. said. “My dad went in to see what he could do about the fire and it was just too big. We had to go.”
Most of the family, still wiping sleep from their eyes, left the house without shoes on their feet. Neighbors and family brought shoes for the Reyes, and later went back home to retrieve food, drink and blankets for the family.
At least one family member, Alex, arrived not knowing her grandfather’s house was burning. She drove her car quickly into the alley behind the house, where many of the spectators were standing. She jumped from her car, grabbed her daughter, Rosie, from the backseat, gave the child to Thomas and rushed off to talk to firefighters and family about the blaze.
Reyes stood just outside his back fence at the head of the crowd, the year-old Rosie in his arm. He watched as firefighters attacked his house with water, gaffs and axes. He smiled and shook neighbors’ hands, always with his eyes focused on his house.
“I had insurance for a while, for two or three years,” he said. “I had to drop it after a while. I tried to get it again, but they don’t insure these kinds of houses anymore, you know.”
He was circumspect and said there was little to do except keep a good attitude and leave things in God’s hands. The house, he said, had been good for him and his family. Thirty years ago, Reyes had a small shotgun house. He decided to expand beginning in the early 1980s.
Since then, he had built a sprawling house, adding one room onto another. He did all the work with family and friends. His extended family, many of whom work at night, often stayed in the house. Many times, he had upwards of fifteen people staying in the house at one time.
Two Kansas City, MO, fire companies fought the blaze for over three hours. Firefighters took breaks, washing their heads in water from leaky fire hoses and taking breaks on the bumpers of their trucks.
Becky, wrapped in a blanket and standing in the spray of water, waited until the fire was completely out and the firefighters packed up to leave before she left to stay with relatives nearby. “I just have to stay,” she said. “All we have is in there.”
Patrick Dobson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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