As flames burst out the roof of a duplex on Selman Street Friday night, two families could just watch in disbelief.
Each one of the two apartments housed an extended family, from mom and dad to uncles, aunts and children. With another family visiting from Atlanta, there were 18 people in the large, two-story home.
Some of the families were out to dinner, others were shopping while two arrived from work, still wearing their business blues, whether it was dress clothes or mechanic coveralls.
Once the fire was out and the firefighters were packing up, the piercing sounds of the empty air tanks were echoing through the neighborhood, almost like an alarm starting the unknown search for blankets and shelter in the cold, fall night.
One sound stood out over the cleanup and noise from the humming engines — the whimpering of young Jayden Hernandez. He is 6, and he has one comfort in his life, a unique stuffed animal toy he calls Woof Woof.
It’s almost like the child Andy from “Toy Story,” who uses the Tom Hanks character Woody as his best friend no matter his age. His stuffed animal cannot be replaced; it was purchased when he was an infant from the now-closed Toys R Us.
Some of the firefighters from the city of Tyler Fire Department who responded to the two-alarm fire came in on their night off. They were missing the local football games, dinner with family or just a well-deserved night off. Some were packing up unaware they would be called to two more fires in the next 12 hours.
All of them rallied around the child. Calls were made on the radio and a few firefighters — probably fathers who know the importance of a toy — walked on the charred, soaked floors looking for the animal.
District Chief David Admire emerged from the mist and darkness with a stuffed animal and brought it to the child. The child looked in horror. It was a dinosaur and did not belong to him. Crushed from the sobs and the tears that were starting to freeze on Jayden’s cheeks, Admire’s hands loosened and the stuffed animal harmlessly fell to the sidewalk as no one noticed.
Jayden’s parents, Jorge Hernandez Jr. and Janet Rodriguez, pulled out their cellphones. With the cell battery life flashing red, they each had clear photos of Woof Woof to show Admire. The toy means so much to young Jayden that he takes photos of his pet dog with their phones each day like it’s his best friend or a brother.
The American Red Cross arrived and started handing out brand-new white blankets to the families. The families were being asked if they needed anything. They only wanted shelter for the night. They did not care about material things. But slippers, socks and the blankets were welcome as they waited on the sidewalk to find out where they would stay.
Jayden clutched his blanket. He wasn’t going to wrap it around his body just yet.
Suddenly, Admire walked up with the toy and tried to sneak it to the child. But the child started screaming tears of joy. He had his Woof Woof. He thanked Admire who backed up when the child started crying. Jayden hugged his mom.
Then he wanted a photo. Not with his favorite toy, but his favorite firefighter, David Admire, an appropriate last name.
Finally, the blanket was put to proper use. Jayden wrapped himself in the new blanket, which now tucked away his childhood best friend.
What could have been a traumatic night for a family, and even longer weeks for a child who needs that security to sleep, turned into a night to remember thanks to a group of firefighters who went the extra mile.
John Anderson is the editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. He can be reached at email@example.com.