The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

Three killed, one injured in Sunday fire


November 28, 2017

David Grieder

With the help of another neighbor, Paul Zion was able to disconnect the air conditioning unit blocking the window exit on the burning building Sunday afternoon in Clovis. The opening was cleared just in time to let out Rogelio Hernandez, the sole survivor of the structure fire that killed three others.

CLOVIS — Everything changed in an instant for four friends caught in a structure fire Sunday afternoon from which only one escaped with his life.

"He said everything just happened so quickly, all he remembers is everything getting real smoky," said Casandra Hernandez, relaying the account of her uncle and the fire's sole survivor, Rogelio Hernandez.

"He happened to be near the window, and that's how he managed to be so lucky."

Even then, that window exit was blocked by an air conditioning unit fastened with bolts from the outside. It was only the quick response of two neighbors that allowed Hernandez, 53, a way out of the building before it was too late.

Karen Kinkade said her sister and two others were not so fortunate.

Firefighters found Billie Jo Grabowsky, 52, John Sandoval, 54, and Robert Elebario, 51, dead inside the small building off the 200 block of Calhoun Street just after 3 p.m. Sunday, said a Clovis Police Department news release.

"According to the police, it's a garage-type shed and they were in one room. There was somebody welding and they kicked over a thing of gas and it caught on fire. And it just went out of control and they couldn't get out because it blocked the only entrance," Kinkade said Monday. "My sister (Grabowsky) and (Sandoval) and (Elebario) passed out before they could get out. The smoke killed them."

Investigators from the State Fire Marshal Office visited the site Monday morning and cleared from the area by afternoon, said Clovis Police Capt. Roman Romero. Toxicology results on the victims are still pending, said Romero, and there were "no overt signs of violent trauma" on any of them.

New Mexico Public Regulation Commission Public Information Officer Carlos Padilla said Monday that state investigators had "narrowed down" the cause of the fire and would release their final determination pending an interview on Wednesday with Rogelio Hernandez.

According to Kinkade and Casandra Hernandez, the fire was a freak accident from a rapid succession of events.

"They were doing some welding and I guess there happened to be a gas can nearby, and the gas can caught a spark," said Casandra Hernandez. "They threw the gas can, and when they threw it it hit the wall where there was insulation and it caused the fire to engulf ... It was that kind of Styrofoam insulation that didn't have any wall coverage on it. It ignited right away."

Casandra Hernandez said her uncle tried to help his friends get out, but "the smoke was so heavy."

Paul Zion was next door that afternoon when he noticed his LED Christmas lights start to flicker in his house. Then he smelled what he thought was an electrical fire with "burning plastic and ozone."

"I can still kind of taste it," he said.

Zion said he ran next door and heard Rogelio Hernandez shouting for help behind the air conditioning unit. He said he pried off what he could of the unit's panels, then ran inside his own house to call for emergency responders.

Returning to the fire he found another neighbor drawn by the commotion. Together, they detached the entire AC unit from the building. Smoke streamed out of the small square opening and the two managed to pull out Rogelio Hernandez.

Other neighbors flocked on scene — maybe half a dozen, estimated Zion — and attempted to pry the metal front door open with a bar.

"It was just a wall of flame," Zion said, estimating flames of 6 or 7 feet. "There was no getting in there."

Zion, who served nine years with the Army, said he was acting on instinct when he responded.

"It's not so much training, it's more of a state of mind," he said. "You see a situation, you react to it."

Rogelio Hernandez was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning at Plains Regional Medical Center and released Sunday, the same night.

"He's doing good, physically. All his test levels came back negative for carbon monoxide," said his niece. "Mentally, he's dealing with a lot right now. ... It's hard to be happy knowing that you've survived and everyone else passed away."

Casandra Hernandez said her uncle and Sandoval were friends since childhood, and she extended "lots of prayers and condolences to all the families involved."

Joe Garcia said he arrived to the residence just as the fire was starting on Sunday. Sandoval was his cousin's son, he said, and was known by many as one of the "real talkative, real friendly guys."

"Every day there were three or four people over here," he said. Sandoval was a "handyman of all trades" and divided his time between the main house and the smaller "out building" where he was Sunday.

Magnolia Prince said she had been over to the building visiting her friends Sunday morning and knew then that some welding projects were in the works. She stood outside the residence Monday afternoon and shuddered thinking of that fire 24 hours earlier.

"One way in, one way out," she said.

Kinkade said she and the rest of Grabowsky's family are "devastated" by the news. The three young grandchildren she was raising are still struggling to process what happened.

"It was just one of those freak accidents. I don't know if we'll ever have answers to all of our questions," she said. "(Police) tell me she wasn't burned, that they died of smoke inhalation. They tell me she didn't suffer. She just couldn't breathe and went to sleep."


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