The memories of a 2-year-old girl and her protective 4-year-old brother were shared between friends, family and firefighters Friday during funeral services for the siblings killed in a house fire last week.
“Everyone was just talking about what great kids they were, very lovable,” Waco Fire Chief Bobby Tatum said after attending graveside services for Anthony Cole Puente Jr., 4, and his sister, Rachel Rose Aleman, 2. “The young man was very protective of his sister and even to the end, he was protecting her.”
The children died in the early morning hours of Nov. 2 when a fire broke out at a home in the 1200 block of Webster Avenue, where the children’s grandmother lived.
The shell of that white, single story home sat empty Friday. Stuffed animals, a doll and flowers lie on the front steps of the home. Alicia Rodriguez, whose family owns the neighboring Jesse’s Tortilla Factory, said her family rented the home to the family.
Alicia Rodriguez said Anthony Puente, the father of the two children, dropped them off at their grandmother’s home the night of the fire. He rented another home from her family, and she had seen him late last month when he came in to pay rent, Alicia Rodriguez said.
“When I heard about the fire, I didn’t know the kids were there at first. But when I heard, I just said ‘Oh my God, oh my God,” Alicia Rodriguez said. “I just couldn’t believe it. They were just here.”
Puente would often bring Anthony Jr. to the tortilla factory with him. Santos Rodriguez, the assistant manager of the business, said Anthony Jr. was always inquisitive, loud and full of energy.
“The little boy would come over every now and then, and he would either want tamales or tortillas,” Santos Rodriguez said. “He would always let me know what he wanted. He was not shy at all, but he always let me know he was here.”
He said seeing the house next door in shambles and wrapped in caution is a heartbreaking reminder of the family’s loss.
“He came in last week for tamales and I’d poke and tickle him, because he wast just happy-go-lucky,” Santos Rodriguez said of the boy. “The little girl never came in like he did, but it is just really sad.”
Attempts by the Tribune-Herald to reach the family were unsuccessful.
Rachel Aleman was described as “Nosey Rosie” in her Nov. 7 obituary. She loved playing with her dolls, but was also described as a tomboy, who liked playing with her cousins and eating “all kinds of food.”
Although the cause of the fire remains under investigation, the completed fire report states the fire originated in the kitchen and dining area. The report does not list a heat source or cause of the ignition.
The children’s grandmother was able to escape the fire with her 11-year-old daughter.
“The rear of the structure had no fire, but the windows were black. I forced what I thought was the back door, but it led to an add-on to the rear of the structure,” the fire report states. “It appeared to be an attached storage shed. There was very little smoke, and I could see there was no door back to the main part of the house.”
Firefighters noted the odd configuration of the home in the fire report. Tatum said the single-family home appeared to be split into two living spaces, which caused confusion for fire crews attempting to search.
The fire report states a glow was seen coming from the main part of the house.
“We could see a big glow above us. We knocked down that room and pushed toward more glow coming from a doorway,” the report states. “We were in zero visibility.”
After minutes of searching, firefighters found Anthony Puente Jr. in the the threshold of a bathroom leading to a closet. In the closet, firefighters found Rachel Aleman.
Both children were removed from the house and taken to Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center, where they were pronounced dead.
“The firefighters gave a valiant effort, but unfortunately there are moments of opportunity in any emergency to make a difference from the time a fire starts to have an effective rescue based on the circumstances,” Tatum said. “We were out of the window of opportunity to save those lives, but our firefighters did everything they could.
“It is just a heartbreaking tragedy that we are still feeling.”