The flames rolling through a North Liberty Street house Thursday morning killed one man, believed to be the home’s elderly resident.
The condition of the body prevented immediate identification, Wharton County Sheriff’s Department Capt. B.J. Novak told the Leader-News Friday. “DNA swabs were taken of relatives,” he added in the effort to confirm the identity.
No one has seen or heard from 76-year-old Leonard Juarez since El Campo’s firefighting volunteers were dispatched to 1020 N. Liberty at 1:34 a.m. Thursday.
“I didn’t know the house was on fire until the policeman knocked on the door,” said Lucy Martinez who lives next door to Juarez.
She added, “I had gone out earlier to feed the cat and I didn’t see anything.”
Martinez had gone back to bed. “But the policeman knocked on the door and said the house was on fire. At first I thought it was mine, but then I looked out and it was flames ... I had never seen anything like that so close to the house.”
Seven minutes after alarms sounded, the first of five El Campo units arrived, finding flames covering the front part of the small wood-framed house and spreading to a Scion parked outside.
“The house was fully involved ... They hit it from the outside and then made entry at two locations. They knocked down the fire pretty good,” El Campo Volunteer Fire Chief Jimmy George Jr. said. “They did a very good job.”
Flames were brought under control by 2:11 a.m., but the 86-year-old home was considered a total loss.
Deputies ordered Martinez’ family to evacuate as a safety precaution while the fire raged, but volunteers quickly beat down flames. “We got in the car, but we didn’t have to go anywhere. We stayed in there about an hour,” Martinez said. “Those trucks, they did a good job.”
Before the last embers were doused, 12 El Campo firefighters arrived on scene along with two Louise VFD units with seven additional crew members.
The body believed to be Juarez’ was located by firefighters “in the kitchen area near a stove,” Novak said, although the heaviest damage was to a front bedroom and living area.
Wharton County Precinct 1 JP Jared Cullar was summoned to the scene and ordered an autopsy conducted. The body was taken to the Fort Bend County Medical Examiners Officer.
Fire crews returned to service at 4:39 a.m.
State Fire Marshals were summoned to determine the cause of the fire. Their investigation wasn’t complete as of press time, however, Novak said, “It’s not believed to be arson.”
The Wharton County Central Appraisal District values the property at $48,136. No information is available on whether there was any insurance on the property.