Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2013 | 4:10 p.m.
The firefighters pulled up to the house with hopes that this bright, brisk Christmas morning would help ease the memory of the black, smoky night three months prior.
The night they couldn’t save the mother of 11-year-old Ashley, 10-year-old Lupita and 8-year-old Isaac.
Clark County Firefighter Faruk Williams still sees 28-year-old Carmen Soloman’s face from time to time. He recognizes the young mother’s features when he meets her children for the first time on Christmas morning.
The Christmas morning fanfare, complete with Santa Claus, Sparky the Fire Dog and a truckload of presents, is part of Operation Fire H.E.A.T. (Holiday Emergency Assistance Team), a nonprofit group that brings Christmas to children who have been through a devastating fire.
It's Christmas comfort, not just for the children — but for the firefighters.
“You always have the memories in your mind. We see things you shouldn’t see in your entire life,” said Michael Purcell, Clark County firefighter and paramedic. “Happy memories like this help us keep going.”
Williams noticed Ashley was crying a bit as she unwrapped the toy oven, nail polish set and other gifts. He said he thought she made the connection of why he and the other firefighters were there. He said he could just tell she was thinking of her mother.
The Sept. 27 night was a brutal situation, the men said, where there was only one way in and one way out.
The fire was in a garage that had been fashioned into a bedroom.
Purcell can play back the entire night in his head. How the children’s grandmother told them Soloman was was trapped inside, the way their masks wouldn’t clear no matter how many times they wiped them, how it felt to carry the mother out — Purcell holding her legs, Williams holding her torso.
“People don’t understand it,” Purcell said. “They think firemen should go in and find them right away — but there’s obstacles.”
Being able to see the surprise on the children’s faces helps trump some of dark days, Purcell said, the times when someone doesn't make it.
Mayra Perez, who took in her sister’s children after the fire, wiped tears from her eyes as she described how much the morning meant. The kids were excited, something she hadn’t seen in a long time, she said.
Las Vegas firefighter Frank Sams said when he and other firefighters respond to calls and notice someone doesn’t have a Christmas tree or presents, they’ll come back with a tree or gifts.
Often people don’t know how to react, which he says is fine; the point is to just give.
The people they encounter are so used to being without, he said, the sudden generosity can catch them off guard.
He likens the response to a quote from "Rocky," “To you, it’s Thanksgiving, to me it’s Thursday.”
Seeing poverty like that, he said, is sobering.
Events like the Christmas morning surprise for the children who lost their mother draw media attention, Sams said, but he likes to think the little efforts they do all the time make a difference, too.
Those times when a firefighter changes a diaper, brings someone a jar of peanut butter or calms a frantic family member.
As firefighters carried gifts into the home this Christmas morning, several of them spotted a faulty smoke detector.
In the background of the family’s unwrapping and oohs and awws, a few firefighters narrowed down which detector was the troublemaker and grabbed a ladder.
Sams climbed up and changed the batteries.
Maybe there wouldn’t be a fire at this house and the new batteries wouldn’t matter. It’s impossible to know.
Sams just did his job, leaned against the ladder and watched the children enjoy Christmas.