First responders rally behind Wheaton paramedic after house fire displaces family
In her high-pressure job, Debra Salinas has to be the voice of calm in crisis.
But a heart-pounding phone call with her husband while Salinas was at work tested her skills in life-or-death situations.
Their house was on fire.
"I don't think my feet hit the pavement on the way to my car," Salinas said.
She rushed from her on-duty paramedic shift at a Wheaton firehouse to her Villa Park home to find a surreal scene: Familiar faces, the people she works with side by side, coming to her aid in a time of near tragedy.
While her husband, their two kids and cousin escaped injury on their own, firefighters rescued the family's dogs after the beloved pets, both almost out the door, bolted back inside the burning home.
But the Feb. 2 fire left their house damaged beyond repair, displacing Salinas and her loved ones.
Nearly two weeks later, Salinas still sounds remarkably calm, relieved and grateful despite everything she's lost.
Coming from a family of nurses, the paramedic owes that perspective to a career helping people on the worst days of their lives. But it's mostly a testament to her co-workers and other first responders coming together to take care of one of their own.
"The police and fire departments -- it's family that you didn't even know you had," Salinas said.
Her supervisor, Dave DiClementi, took it upon himself to set up a GoFundMe page to ease the family's financial burden.
It's raised nearly $60,000, with donations pouring in from around the country. Within four days, the page eclipsed a $50,000 fundraising goal.
"It's a true demonstration of how small the fire service is from coast to coast," said DiClementi, Wheaton's EMS community risk reduction manager.
Police and fire colleagues became a "backbone" for Salinas on the day of the fire and since.
She credits Villa Park police for digging out a fire hydrant covered in snow so firefighters could focus on their jobs.
"Those guys just grabbed shovels and just went to town on it," Salinas said.
She leaned on her instincts to try to keep her composure and stay out of the way of firefighters, who carried an unresponsive Sarge -- a hound mix weighing more than 100 pounds -- to safety.
Sarge was revived with oxygen, but Salinas wasn't sure their second dog would make it out alive. Firefighters recovered Duke, also unresponsive, after the blaze was already extinguished. The black lab had inhalation burns in his mouth and throat.
A quick-thinking Bryan Hruby, a Villa Park police officer, called ahead to DuPage Animal Hospital so vets would be ready for the dogs' arrival.
Duke and Sarge transferred to VCA Arboretum View Animal Hospital and have since reunited with the family to the delight of Salinas' sons, Leo, 8, and Max, 10.
The family has found temporary housing and plans to rebuild. The fire began in the basement, but investigators haven't determined a cause due to the damage.
In the hours and days after the blaze, her friends and co-workers made sure Salinas, her husband, Alex, and their kids have clothing and supplies.
"We're just so thankful for their job and the hard work that they do every single day," Salinas said. "It's not an easy job to do, but they still go into work every day even if they're going to show up at one of their own's house. We're just so thankful. If it wasn't for them, the dogs wouldn't have made it."
Salinas, who's known for recruiting her co-workers for a charity dodgeball tournament at Franklin Middle School in Wheaton, has been overwhelmed by the donations. She's hoping to repay the generosity and asks people to instead give clothing to the People's Resource Center, the Midwest Shelter for Homeless Veterans and other charities that provide housing.
"It could have been way worse for us," she said, "so we're just happy that we're all OK, and we're all healthy, and now, it's time to get back to focusing on other people."
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