‘The worst kind of nightmare.’ Dad says 2 of his kids died after Charlotte house fire

As usual, Clementino Mendez Domingo called his wife on Wednesday shortly after midnight while he was at work cleaning office buildings. But when he phoned her from his Waxhaw job he heard a disturbing noise in the background of their east Charlotte home.

“An alarm is going off,” he recalls his wife, Ana Sanchez, saying. She said she was checking to see if a kitchen alarm had malfunctioned. The next thing he heard was “Fuego! Fuego!” (Spanish for “fire.”)

Then, nothing.

Mendez Domingo said he called 911, and tried to explain to Union County dispatchers that his family in Charlotte was in trouble. He jumped in his car. By the time he arrived home, rescue crews had taken seven family members to local hospitals.

He said his step-son, 9-year-old Leonel Alexander Villagrez Sanchez, died on Wednesday at Novant Health Presbyterian. His 2-year-old daughter, Aranza Santa Mendez Sanchez, died around 11 p.m. Wednesday at Carolinas Medical Center, Mendez Domingo said.

Five other family members all suffered life-threatening injuries and are in hospitals in Charlotte, Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, Mendez Domingo said.

He said his 3-month-old son, Axel Camilo Mendez Santos, remains in Carolinas Medical Center, along with Ana Sanchez. Both are in intensive care suffering the effects of smoke inhalation, Mendez Domingo said.

Aranza Santa Mendez Sanchez
Aranza Santa Mendez Sanchez, age 2, died late Wednesday night from injuries she suffered in a house fire at her home in East Charlotte. Courtesy of Clementino Mendez Domingo

And he said his 7-year-old step-son (Ana Sanchez’ son by a previous relationship), Abner Francisco Villagrez Sanchez, is in Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

Two other adult family members who live in the home, Santiago Juarez Ramirez and Alba Juarez Mendez, are both being treated at a Chapel Hill hospital, Mendez Domingo said.

Mendez Domingo spoke, sobbing, with the Observer Thursday afternoon from Carolinas Medical Center, where he was keeping watch on the conditions of his wife and baby.

“This is the worst kind of nightmare,” he said.

Lionel Alexander Villagrez Sanchez
Lionel Alexander Villagrez Sanchez, age 9, died following a house fire in East Charlotte early Wednesday morning. He was a third grader at Briarwood Elementary. Courtesy of Clementino Mendez Domingo

The fire’s cause

The fire in the 1900 block of Academy Street was caused by an unattended candle or candles, according to a fire department tweet Wednesday. The home is off East Sugar Creek Road, near Eastway Drive.

Deborah Schaeffer told The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday that she watched from her front yard as several people fled the burning home. Schaeffer guided two badly burned children into her own home, she later told reporters.

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More than 30 firefighters responded to the scene, according to a CFD tweet. and the blaze was brought under control in half an hour.

The fire caused an estimated $120,000 in damages, fire officials tweeted.

Going home

On Thursday, Mendez Domingo was praying that doctors could save his wife, children and other family members who were fighting for their lives. And he was beginning to plan for how to send the children’s bodies to Guatemala. Lionel, Mendez Domingo’s step-son, was a third grader at Briarwood Elementary.

Mendez Domingo has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, but said he feels Guatemala should be their resting place.

“It seems right that they should go to our home,” he said.

Joe Marusak: 704-358-5067, @jmarusak

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Joe Marusak has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1989 covering the people, municipalities and major news events of the region, and was a news bureau editor for the paper. He currently reports on breaking news.