In a matter of moments, a family’s Christmas shopping adventure became a drastic fight for survival on Friday, Dec. 13 when their car caught fire near the intersection of Southern and Forest Hill boulevards around 8:30 p.m.
Juan Lopez watched somberly as angry flames ravaged his recently purchased 2003 Ford Explorer. Letticia Santoyo and the five children with her — all who were in the car when the blaze began — stood safely on the sidelines, shaken but very much alive.
While Lopez lives in Clewiston and Santoyo in Belle Glade, the close family friends went Christmas shopping in Royal Palm Beach, according to Santoyo, who brought four of her daughters and her 4-year-old niece along on the expedition.
Following a trip to Target and Walmart, the family was on the way home when an ominous odor crept into the car.
“We smelled gas, but we didn’t know where it was coming from,” Santoyo said. “We thought it was another car, but [Lopez] said it could have been his.”
He decided to check it out at a nearby gas station.
“But we didn’t make it to the gas station,” Santoyo continued. “He was still driving when it was on fire.”
Lopez stopped the car and the group immediately fled the vehicle.
Within minutes, Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Station 25 was on the scene and extinguishing the fire. The crisis was averted without injury, but the vehicle could not be saved.
In the midst of the chaos, the oldest child in the car, Leticia Cordero, 17, jumped out of the Explorer while it was still moving.
“All of a sudden, my mom’s like, ‘The car is on fire!’” Cordero said. “And all I know is I turned around and my whole door is on fire.”
Cordero, the most visibly shaken of all the children, said she yanked on the door handle until it gave, and she got out.
“I was scared I was going to die,” Cordero said. “But I was more scared because I thought they didn’t get out.”
On a lesser note, Cordero was sad because the gift she just bought her boyfriend, a Call of Duty video game, was damaged in the fire.
“The main present I got was for him got burnt in the front seat,” Cordero said. “And I’m sad because that’s the only thing I got him.”
Cordero’s boyfriend, Daniel Briones, arrived on the scene in support of the family. Despite Cordero’s chagrin over the game, Briones expressed more gratitude in her survival than disappointment in losing his Christmas gift.
“He said, ‘It’s replaceable, and you’re not,’” Cordero said.
Cordero’s mother knew the feeling. While the game was the only gift Lopez didn’t save, Santoyo said the presents were small when compared to the presence of her children. “I’d rather lose everything than any one of my kids,” Santoyo said.
The mother of nine has already experienced such terrible loss, losing two children in recent years. “A car can always be replaced, but you can never replace your child,” Santoyo said.
The car did, however, belong to Lopez who, though disappointed in the fact that his Explorer was a melted pile of rubble on the side of the road, said the most important thing was that everyone was all right.
“I’m just glad they’re safe,” Lopez said.