IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Puerto Rico town struggles to heal from fatal fire

Justino Sanchez Diaz
Justino Sanchez Diaz from the Puerto Rican town of Florida is wheeled into court in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 3. Using kerosene and a propane tank, Sanchez allegedly set fire to more than a dozen of his family members and a visiting U.S. woman as they sat down for a New Year's dinner. Humberto Trias Casalduc / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

They ran out of the house one by one, several of them bald and nearly naked, their hair and clothes burned off in a New Year's blaze that police say was set by a relative wielding kerosene and a homemade torch.

"Everyone came out yelling, 'He's crazy! He's crazy!'" neighbor Viviana Bruno, 31, told The Associated Press on Wednesday as she recalled the fire that claimed five lives and critically injured several people.

"It was like a horror movie," she said.

The first person out of the two-story home nestled near the mountains of the central town of Florida was Samuel Molina.

He ran across the street to his house, where Bruno and other neighbors laid him down on the cool tile floor, opened a hose and poured water on him.

"'Don't let me die,' he kept saying," Bruno said.

Molina was the first to die. Also dead is the suspect's elderly mother, his teenage niece and his nephew, Jesus Sanchez, who recently became engaged and had flown from Seattle with his fiancee, Kate Donahue, so his family could meet her.

Donahue, 25, died on Thursday at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Burn Center in Miami, Florida, where she was taken to receive treatment for burns on more than 80 percent of her body, said Justin Stein, a close family friend.

"She passed very peacefully," Stein said. "We were reminiscing about her life. The doctor said she could hear us talking to her."

Sanchez and Donahue were a fun couple with lots of friends, and they enjoyed dancing and frequented a piano bar in Seattle where he proposed, said Rob McMurray, who shared a condominium apartment with both of them.

He recalled thinking it odd that Sanchez, who owned the condominium, asked him if it was OK if Donahue moved in.

"That's the kind of guy he was," McMurray said in a phone interview. "They were wonderful, generous, caring people."

The couple was part of a group of 14 people that suspect Justino Sanchez Diaz, 45, had invited to the house he shared with his parents and sister for an early New Year's dinner, authorities said.

Police said Sanchez Diaz already had doused the walls with gasoline and set canisters with fuel under furniture, including the dining room table. As the group sat down to eat, he came out with a tank of propane gas, doused people with kerosene and set them on fire with a homemade torch, police said.

"It was something nobody expected," local police Lt. Francisco Rosado said. "We haven't even had five murders in the last decade."

Family members have not speculated on a motive, and police say Sanchez Diaz has kept silent and refused to eat since his arrest.

Florida is a tight-knit town of 15,000 people where businesses have handmade signs advertising fresh hot bread and Christian music wafts through quiet neighborhoods.

Many people know the Sanchez family, described as a warm and gregarious group. They live on a dead-end street in a home that has served many times as the center for neighborhood gatherings, neighbors said.

That tradition ended around the time Sanchez Diaz moved into the house several years ago and his mother's health began deteriorating, said Bruno, who has known the family since she was a child.

Sanchez Diaz had being living and working in San Juan when he took over his father's moving business, but he later became unemployed and moved to Florida. He waved occasionally to neighbors but kept to himself, said neighbor Jose Loubriel, 77, who was a cousin of the suspect's dead mother.

Several relatives who survived the blaze declined to comment, saying they did not want to jeopardize the investigation.

Orlando Robles, whose wife is the suspect's sister, said his family did not attend the family dinner next door. He declined to say why, but police said Sanchez Diaz has had several run-ins with Robles' family, including setting fire to his hen house several years ago.

"Through this pain that we're experiencing we're more united than ever," Robles said, adding: "These wounds will take a long time to heal."

Minutes after the blaze began, Loubriel said he heard people yelling outside his house, asking that he help rescue his cousin, who was in her 80s and could not run out of the house.

"When I entered the house, someone had already found her," he said. "Imagine. I was in shock to see the condition of the house inside. And all those people, my God, all of them naked."

Florida's mayor, Jose Aragon Parga, said the community is still in shock.

"We have not had one violent death, and in one day, several people die," he said. "Nobody thought it could happen."