Official investigations into the fire that killed 49 children at a Mexican daycare center in 2009 remain inconclusive. VICE News spoke to the man who rescued three children from the burning blaze, and only got shafted by a TV show as a result.
On the afternoon of Friday, June 5, 2009, Juan López Trujillo, known locally as “Cayetano,” was throwing back some beers and smoking weed with his compadres along the dry riverbed that he called home, in the Mexican city of Hermosillo, Sonora.
Four blocks from where he stood, a fire had just broken out inside the ABC Daycare Center, in a barrio known as Y Griega. Cayetano, now 40, saw the column of black smoke that was beginning to darken the sky over Hermosillo. At first he thought a tire yard near the daycare center had caught fire.
Accustomed to collecting scraps to survive, Cayetano told VICE News he thought that he could find a big trailer tire to sell and get some money so he could “keep hanging out.” At this point, Cayetano had no idea that he was about to encounter a scene of chaos and horror — a fire that would kill 49 babies and toddlers.
Half a decade later, the results of the official investigation into the fire are still pending, and those who caused the tragedy due to negligence are still enjoying total impunity. Most of the officials listed by Mexico’s Supreme Court as potentially responsible for the tragedy — including the owners and partners of the daycare center’s company, the government offices in charge of supervising the proper operation of contracted facilities such as the ABC, and the governor of Sonora state at the time — remain free.
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The fire started in stacks of paperwork at a state tax agency warehouse next door to the daycare center, fueling theories that the fire was intentionally started by someone seeking to destroy a possibly incriminating paper trail. Every June 5 since, the parents of the injured and deceased children from the blaze have marched in Hermosillo and Mexico City to demand that those responsible be brought to justice. They chant, “No forgiving, no forgetting.”
What is certain is that the case is a scar on Mexican society, a potent symbol of the persistent failures of Mexico’s government to seek and acquire justice for its citizens.
“When I got there, all of the ladies were screaming for their children and there were police officers just standing around like statues, doing nothing,” Cayetano recalled on Sunday, a few days before today’s fifth anniversary of the tragedy. The 49 victims were all between the ages of five months and five years. More than 70 others were seriously burned.
All of a sudden, the scrap metal collector recalled, someone said, “Get in there, Cayetano,” and he didn’t think twice.
Cayetano didn’t have any protective gear, of course, let alone any training on how to rescue people from a fiery building. But he did have the courage that the police standing nearby appeared to lack. He went in, intent on pulling out trapped toddlers as fire consumed the center. ABC operated inside a converted warehouse, and did not have any properly functioning emergency exits although it had passed a recent municipal safety inspection.
“I just jumped in. Someone passed me an extinguisher, I sprayed the only door there was, and leapt in through the gap that opened up in the flames. There was already fire here, there, and everywhere. Just picture hell, my friend,” Cayetano told me, sitting on the patio of his property, where he lives with his family in a few small concrete rooms that he built himself with a lot of difficulty and little money.
The smell of burning flesh on Cayetano’s hands was the confirmation that the tiny figure on the chair was in fact a little girl.
Once inside the burning daycare center, Cayetano spent a few moments moving through the rooms, seeing nothing but ashes and flaming objects, and avoiding falling chunks of the polyurethane ceiling. Miraculously, Cayetano said the toxic smoke did not affect his breathing. He then saw the unmoving silhouette of a little girl, sitting on a little chair in the corner of the engulfed room. Cayetano said that he was unsure if he was seeing a girl or just a doll. He also said that he heard the “voices of the gods” booming in his head.
“On one side, a voice told me: ‘Don’t pull her out, idiot, it’s a doll and everyone will laugh at you when you come out with her in your arms.’ But another voice, from somewhere else, kept repeating: ‘You have to get her out, you have to get her out,’” Cayetano said, looking from side to side as if the voices he heard that day five years ago would soon reappear.
Cayetano said he decided to approach the chair. He took the little girl by the waist, but she slipped from his hands as if she were melting and fell back into the chair, he recalled.
The smell of burning flesh on Cayetano’s hands was the confirmation that the tiny figure on the chair was in fact a little girl. Cayetano removed his tank-top and wrapped the girl in it, turning her face down so as to not “freak out” as he traced his steps back outside. The flames kept rising and growing in intensity. Cayetano was unable to see the exit, until finally a small light — which he says was like a little “tinkerbell” — showed him the way out, through the daycare center’s only door.
“As soon as I exited, they took the girl from me, immediately, and told me to go back in. [The police] gave me their shirts, with their badges and everything, so that I could cover myself. But, the first thing I did when I entered the second time was to throw their shirts into the flames, because they were worthless,” Cayetano said, proudly. “It was crazy, walking around in the fire but not getting burned.”
'I didn’t get anything. But it’s all good. I didn’t go in there to profit off this misfortune.'
During his second run into the hellhole, Cayetano managed to pull another two children from the burning center. Meanwhile, another young man named Francisco “Frank” López rammed his pickup truck into one of the daycare’s walls to improvise an emergency exit. Cayetano believes that this sudden influx of oxygen served to fuel the flames, but there was also no other way to reach more of the children burning to death inside.
“That’s when the fire got really fucked up, and it became harder to rescue the children,” Cayetano told me. “I think they gave that guy another pickup, and I didn’t get anything. But it’s all good. I didn’t go in there to profit off this misfortune.”
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That afternoon, after his involvement in the emergency effort, Cayetano sat down for a few moments to witness the scene unfold.
Afterwards, he walked the four blocks back to his house, and sat at his small shrine for several hours to cry, surrounded by images of Our Lady of Guadalupe and other saints that his family venerates. Then, he said, he slept for three days.
“I felt completely weak. I did not get up to eat, or even use the bathroom.”
Deceiving an unsung hero
Historian Benjamin Alonso Rascón first disclosed the scrap metal collector’s story — and those of other compadres in his barrio who helped out that day — in a blog post in late 2009. Afterwards, many offers of help and promises to improve his life came rolling his way. All of them proved to be deceptions, Cayetano said.
The most upsetting for Cayetano came when he accepted an offer to participate in TV Azteca’s show Tiempo de Heroes (Time for Heroes), on June 19, 2012. Before accepting, Cayetano recalled, a casting director spent four days trying to convince him to come on the show. He was promised tours of Mexico City, and also the fulfillment of his dream of meeting Cepillín — a famous Mexican clown. Cayetano said is a fan of clowns, “because those guys are always happy.”
After several rounds of negotiations, Cayetano decided to say yes to the offers, with the condition that they find him some Clonazepam to help him relax on his first-ever plane trip. The TV Azteca representative also got him an identification card at a local post office, the easiest ID to get in Mexico, so that he could board the plane. As a bonus, they promised he would get to take pictures with the host of the show, actress Edith González, although Cayetano is of the opinion that “the blonde girls in Sonora are way hotter.”
Before the program was filmed, Cayetano and his niece Ramona waited for a few hours in one of the TV station’s rooms. Once the taping got started, González narrated — with tears welling up her eyes — the story of Cayetano and the blaze at the ABC daycare center. She told him that she had a special surprise just for him.
“Cayetano, we know you have a hernia that keeps you from working. I too have had two inguinal hernias, and we are going to take you to one of the best surgeons in the country, Enrique Colonna, who is on the phone with us,” González said. “I have to ask a favor of you, Enrique, I want you to publicly commit to seeing if you can operate on Cayetano.”
“Of course we can operate, free of charge,” the surgeon said on the phone. “And we are going to fix his hernias, and give him the mesh — like the one I used on you [Edith] — we are going to donate them to Cayetano; it’s the least we can do for someone this important. Mexico needs more people just like him, right now, people of this caliber.”
“Thank you, Enrique. You are a hero as well,” the host replied, as Cayetano smiled nervously.
Cayetano's appearance on Tiempo de Heroes. At 0:44 there's a video review of the case, at 1:52 the host begins introducing Cayetano, at 2:42 he walks in.
As soon as the filming was over, Cayetano was told that his flight was leaving in an hour-and-a-half, and that, “If you miss it, that’s your problem.” There were no tours of Mexico City and no picture with Cepillín — who Cayetano incidentally has tattooed on his back. The promise made publicly during the program, the hernia operation, also never happened. I saw the proof: The bulging hernia visible on Cayetano’s left groin.
“For the trip there, we were treated like kings, and on the way back we were treated like mules,” lamented the hero who saved three children from the burning daycare center.
Five years since the ABC center burned to the ground, the volunteer lifesaver says that he manages to survive everyday because he “gets back on the horse” to look for cans, wires, and recyclable trash that he can sell. He also occasionally does construction work. Cayetano’s skin is deeply tanned, looking almost cured from years of walking the streets of Hermosillo, beneath the intense desert sun.
“Everyone shows up to make promises and says that they are going to improve my life, but they are all just promises. Or, they say that first I have to get my act together, but I like my life how it is,” Cayetano said. “That’s why I don’t like to talk to reporters, or government officials, because they are vultures. They just come to take pictures and kiss up to me, but I don’t need them at all.”
Cayetano later confessed that he was about to run off when I came to look for him for an interview. But an inkling made him change his mind. “You don’t have the face of a vulture,” he told me. We spent almost two hours talking about his life, hobbies, habits, and passions.
When I asked him if, after everything that has happened, he would again risk his life to save others, he said: “I would go back in, because I have lived through a lot, and I actually enjoyed the rush I felt when I entered the flames.”
“Sometimes,” he went on, “when I am watching TV and see the rescue missions they do for earthquakes and things like that, I get the urge to want to go there, so I can go in and pull people out, like the rescuers. Do you think I could get a job like that?”
I asked Cayetano if he considered himself a hero, and if he felt he wasn’t properly acknowledged for his rescue efforts.
“Once someone asked me what I expected to get in return for having saved those children. I told him that the only thing I wanted is for God to save me a little corner in heaven when he takes me up. That is all,” he replied. “Anyway, I am sort of ignorant, and I don’t really even know what it means to be a hero.”
All photos by Manuel Larios