ORANGE PARK – Elise Gonzalez, 37, used to have nightmares about her childhood home catching on fire. She would wake up every night in cold sweats, frightened that the house she called home would be …
ORANGE PARK – Elise Gonzalez, 37, used to have nightmares about her childhood home catching on fire. She would wake up every night in cold sweats, frightened that the house she called home would be ablaze. As she grew older, these nightmares happened less frequently until they stopped happening at all.
On Jan. 6, at around 6 p.m., that nightmare became real.
Gonzalez had walked to a convenience store down the road to pick up some groceries. As she walked past the front of the Kings Tree Apartments sign everything was as it had always been. Kingsley Avenue was still busy. Her apartments were still quiet.
Gonzalez made her way into her home, apartment 44, and just moments after putting her stuff done, heard screaming and yelling urgently commanding everyone to leave.
“Everyone was yelling, ‘get out, get out,’ and that’s when I realized there was a fire,” Gonzalez said.
About a tenth of a mile down the street in a neighborhood called Fox Valley, Debby Terry watched from her back deck as the sky just to the east was lit ablaze.
“The entire sky was lit up with this white smoke, which happens when [firefighters] spray water onto burning wood,” Terry said. “It was so wide and so much that I would have guessed that multiple buildings were on fire.”
Despite looking like multiple buildings on fire, Clay County Fire Department Chief Lorin Mock said it was just one building, albeit a fairly-large building. He said the massive fire caused an estimated $1 million in damages. Conflicting reports said anywhere between nine and 15 families’ homes lost their homes. According to Mock, it was around 6:05 p.m. on Jan. 6 when a Jacksonville Fire and Rescue unit drove by and noticed the fire.
“They saw the fire and immediately stopped,” said Mock. “They notified residents and requested assistance.”
When this unit stopped, the fire had already extended into the roof. The Jacksonville squad was quickly joined by the Orange Park Fire Department and the Clay County Fire Department.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez stood by a nearby tow zone sign watching her building go up in flames, terrified that the engulfing fire might reach apartment 44. Unable to do anything, Gonzalez, like Terry a tenth of a mile away, watched. According to Gonzalez, in no time, what seemed like 100 firefighters had made their way to the scene. Shortly after, Kingsley Avenue was closed off to traffic. Even if she wanted to, Terry couldn’t leave her neighborhood. Fortunately, her home was safe from the fire. Gonzalez, on the other hand, didn’t want to leave – she wanted to see if her apartment would make it through this.
“They were shooting surges and surges of water, but the fire just wouldn’t let up,” Gonzalez said. “The fire would be put out in one place but would begin blazing in another part of the building.”
Mock said it took the three fire departments about an hour to get the fire under control, but the firefighters fought this fire well into the next day’s early hours.
The next morning, Gonzalez was homeless. Told by multiple police officers and more than one fire authority, Gonzalez wasn’t allowed into her home – not even to grab her wallet.
“I was told that I would be arrested if I stepped past that yellow tape,” Gonzalez said. “They haven’t deemed it safe for entry and I won’t know if I can go in for at least another one or two weeks they said.”
Inside her apartment was Gonzalez’s clothes, her toothbrush, her wallet and more.
“It’s your home,” said Gonzalez. “That’s where you keep everything and I can’t get anything now.”
Gonzalez had to walk down the road to the bank to get money so that she could pay for the hotel she would be calling home for the foreseeable future.
“I don’t really know anything about what’s to come,” said Gonzalez. “I was kind of just tossed out of my home with nothing to show for.”
“I’m in a hotel for now but I can’t afford that forever,” Gonzalez continued.
It’s been days since the fire and not one night since the fire has Gonzalez experienced a good night’s sleep. The nightmares she thought she outgrew plague her mind every time she closes her eyes, except now, she sees not her childhood home in flames, but the home she had just days ago.
“I don’t know what happens now,” Gonzalez said. “My whole life is sitting in there and I’m sitting out here.”
The fire marshal ruled the fire as accidental saying it was caused by a faulty heating and air conditioning unit.