Three times, Claudia Gonzalez fought her way through flames that engulfed her Kansas City, Kan., home.
Twice, she emerged, bringing two of her children to safety. The third time, the heat and smoke overcame her, and she couldn’t get to her 3-year-old son.
He died. She suffered severe burns on 40 percent of her body in the Oct. 1 blaze.
The story of Gonzalez’s heroism caught the attention of another group of heroes.
This week, the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation named Gonzalez as one of 20 finalists nationwide for its Citizen Service Before Self honors.
The non-profit group is an arm of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, made up of those who have received the nation’s highest military honor. It established the citizen honors to recognize “ordinary Americans who become extraordinary through their indomitable courage and selflessness.”
Three of the finalists will receive the awards. The winners will be announced March 12 and honored later in the month at a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Gonzalez was one of 10 recognized for a single act of “extraordinary heroism.” Ten others, including Tracy Della Vecchia of Columbia, were chosen for ongoing acts of selflessness.
The Oct. 1 fire broke out about 5:30 a.m. in a house that had been converted to apartments in the 300 block of North 31st Street.
Firefighters arrive on the scene in less than a minute, but flames already were roaring from the one-story structure, said Deputy Kansas City, Kan., Fire Chief Craig Duke.
Witnesses described how Gonzalez waded into the inferno three times to get to her children, Duke said. She rescued her 1-year-old and 10-year-old. But she could not get to 3-year-old Yair Ramos. Firefighters recovered his body after putting out the fire.
“It’s phenomenal what she did,” Duke said.
Firefighters wear protective gear when entering such dangerous situations, but Gonzalez went in again and again wearing only her nightclothes and knowing that she was likely to be injured, he said.
“She’s going back into a fire that everybody else is running away from,” he said. “I think that’s the epitome of what that award is about.”
Gonzalez, who is still undergoing treatment for her injuries, was not available for comment Wednesday.