Claudia Gonzalez pushes aside her bowl of soup and gingerly grasps the piece of paper, a press release.
Her hands are covered by fingerless tight gloves, compressing her fragile skin. More tight wrappings encase her arms.
Her eyes scan the paper, spotting her name and the paragraph summing up the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation nomination.
It’s a great honor, her friend explains in Spanish, given to very few people.
For your bravery in the fire, she’s told.
No, Gonzalez says, shaking her head and beginning to cry.
“I don’t care if everything burned,” she says, “but the baby, the baby.”
A hero, she insists, would have saved all of her children.
• • •
A firefighter can wear 40 pounds of gear — helmet, coat, gloves, boots and breathing apparatus.
Even with such protection, to stand in a fully raging fire is to face blasting heat and rolling waves of pressure as it consumes anything flammable — carpet, drapes, furniture.
Gonzalez wore a nightshirt when she ran into such a blaze that horrible October morning.
She stormed into her burning home at least once, possibly multiple times. Witnesses tell different stories.
She did it to save her children.
But as she tried to rescue 3-year-old Yahir Ramos, part of the ceiling crashed down, knocking her to the floor and into what firefighters later assessed was the middle of the blaze.
Six months later, Gonzalez doesn’t care to remember much about the fire.
But the Kansas City, Kan., Fire Department never forgot her.
Arriving one minute after the first 911 call, they found Gonzalez lying in a nearby yard, more than 50 percent of her skin burned.
She’d saved two of her sons: Kevin, 2 and Rene, 10.
Firemen found Yahir’s body inside the house.
When his hand slipped from his mother’s, the little boy had run away from the flames but farther from the only exit—the front door.
“We have had members of the public do extraordinary things, but this was way above and beyond anything anybody had ever witnessed,” said Craig Duke, deputy chief.
The department nominated Gonzalez for a Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation award.
She is one of 20 finalists nationally for the Citizen Service Before Self Honors.
Today, the top three recipients will be named and then invited to a ceremony later this month at Arlington National Cemetery, near the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“It just shows you the power of a mother’s love,” Duke said. “She’s a hero to us.”
• • •
Doctors, therapists and social workers all peg the mother, an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico, as “stoic.”
“She is not worried about the pain part at all,” said Dhaval Bhavsar, who performed most of the surgeries and is also medical director of the Burnett Burn Center at the University of Kansas Hospital. “She is not a complainer.”
Gonzalez’s entire face, hairline to neck, has been replaced by skin grafts from her inner thighs. Further surgeries placed the skin from the tops of her thighs onto her arms, hands and upper chest. Her right leg below the knee was amputated when small clots in her arteries cut off circulation. One pinkie was recently amputated, too. It had been burned to the bone.
Gonzalez, 42, spent the first 24 days at the hospital heavily sedated.
When she awoke, her first questions were of her children. Family decided to wait several days before telling her of Yahir’s death.
Kevin didn’t recognize his mother at first, her head and body were so heavily bandaged. The elder son counseled his little brother to listen to her voice.
But she’s healing remarkably fast for such severe injuries, said Bhavsar.
Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas has helped the family. And El Centro, a social service agency.
Kid Rock, in Kansas City for a concert, heard about her story and made a personal donation of $10,000 for her care. (The gift that will cover the cost of the prosthetic leg she received last week.) His foundation donated $15,000 more to El Centro to defray other costs.
A network of immigrant women, many of them office cleaners like Gonzalez, have stepped forward with financial donations, food and items for the family’s new apartment.
One woman became akin to Gonzalez’s personal assistant, driving her to every doctor’s appointment. The woman’s daughter is a classmate of Rene’s.
And both of the children’s grandmothers, paternal and maternal, have been helping.
• • •
This story has one hero who hasn’t been identified.
About two dozen people lived in the house that burned. It had been broken into three apartments. No cause for the blaze could be established because the damage was so extensive, according to the Fire Department.
But one of the men living in the basement unit probably saved Gonzalez’s life.
He pushed open the front door after it slammed shut when the ceiling fell, and he pulled her to the safety of the wooden porch. No one is sure of his name.
The man didn’t realize Yahir was still inside.
The eldest son, Rene, was the first one to awake to the flames. He ran to his mother’s room, waking her.
Both children had minor burns, singed eyebrows.
Their mother is grateful the other children weren’t seriously harmed. She speaks of needing to carry on for their sake, of relearning to walk so she can return to work.
Still, she’s aware that Rene is behaving much older than a child his age. And that Kevin doesn’t have the vocabulary to express what he feels. Especially now — the little boy broke his femur recently after a fall from a plastic toy car.
And she remembers Yahir as a little boy who loved to bounce around the house.
When Gonzalez left the hospital in December, the first stop she made was to the cemetery where Yahir is buried.
She left flowers on his grave.