NM – Clara Garcia, News-Bulletin Staff Writer
Belen A Belen family narrowly escaped a devastating fire that destroyed their home, vehicles, a motor home, shed and everything they owned on New Year’s Day.
Belen Fire Chief Wayne Gallegos said fire crews were called out to a house that had exploded at 07 Terraza Court, east of Gabaldon Road, just before 3 p.m. on Saturday. Minutes prior to the fire call, someone had called the Belen dispatch center reporting a gas leak in the same area.
According to Gallegos, the owner of the home, Eduardo Tafoya, was pulling into his driveway when a large fire ball from a neighbor’s 500-gallon propane tank shot straight toward his home. Tafoya, who suffered first- and second-degree burns on his left hand and a few burns on his right hand, was able to get into his house and save his family.
Tafoya’s girlfriend, Marie Varela, was inside the family’s home when she heard a loud hissing sound, Gallegos said. It was at the moment she walked outside to investigate the noise that the house exploded.
“She got knocked out and fell to the ground,” Gallegos said. “The couple’s son (Anthony Trujillo) was still inside and was working on the computer. The blast was so strong that he flew off his chair.”
Varela’s eyebrows and hair were singed and she sustained minor burns to both arms. Anthony Trujillo, 8, was not hurt.
Gallegos said Eduardo ran inside the burning house and rescued his son and then picked up and carried his girlfriend to safety. Not knowing who was possibly still in the house, the owner of the propane tank, Kenneth Cordova, who suffered first- and second-degree liquid propane burns to his arms and chest, risked his own life and raced into the home looking for the family, fire officials said.
“All he could think of was that he had to get these people out of that home,” said Valencia County Deputy Fire Marshal Charles Eaton. “He ran in and started searching for the family to rescue them. When he came out, they (the family) made contact with him.
“He (Cordova) went to try and save his neighbors even though he was already injured. Although he went beyond what he should have done as far as safety issues, he really tried to save them.”
Gallegos said Cordova had been doing regular maintenance on the tank when he noticed a leak. He immediately ran inside his own home and called 911.
“Once the family was safe, the man (Eduardo Tafoya) was able to get into one of his trucks that was just starting to catch fire and move it,” Gallegos said.
Varela and Cordova were transported to the hospital where they were treated for their injuries. Both have since been released and are recovering.
“What happened was that, after the explosion, the propane tank acted like a torch and burned out all the propane facing this way (toward the house),” the fire chief said. “We still don’t know what actually caused the propane leak to ignite that’s still under investigation.”
Eaton said his office, along with the Belen Fire Department and two inspectors from the New Mexico Propane Authority, are still trying to determine what caused the explosion. He said while he believes it was an accident, the ignition source could have been caused several ways.
“There are several items that we’ve identified as possible ignition sources, but we have not finalized what may have been the cause,” Eaton said. “We had a vehicle that just pulled in minutes before the fire, you have electricity flowing, sparks that could happen, appliances within the home and even static electricity may have cause the ignition.”
Gallegos said the large propane tank was about 40 percent full, carrying about 200 gallons of propane.