JEROME — An emergency dispatcher took the first 911 call at 4:33 p.m. on April 30, 2013. The caller could see smoke through the windows of the first-floor business at 126 W. Main St. but didn’t know if anyone was inside.
Twenty-seven seconds into the call, the caller said no flames were visible. Based on the smoke, though, it looked really bad.
Nobody in those early moments knew just how bad it would be.
Likely ignited by an unattended glue gun — inspectors never could absolutely confirm the cause — that 2013 fire was the most destructive in Jerome since the early 1920s. But the effects didn’t end when firefighters finally extinguished it three days later. Nor did they end a few months later, when the city retracted a $96,701 bill it sent to the owner of the building that burned.
The effects are still felt, 3 1/2 years later, by the 41 people who lost their apartments and all their possessions — and by the city enduring a huge crater on Main Street.
The 911 dispatcher acted quickly that fateful afternoon.
Within a minute, the crew from Jerome Fire Department’s station 51 was en route. Firefighters entered with a fire hose on the red brick building’s north side, but they couldn’t get the inferno under control because of its intensity and size.
Smoke billowed from the commercial and apartment building, reducing visibility to zero at Jerome’s principal intersection. Main Street and Lincoln Avenue were shut down. Eight Magic Valley firefighting agencies converged to battle the blaze.
Fire crews attempted to ventilate the building, but a smoke explosion blew window glass more than 100 feet, forcing them to adopt more defensive tactics. At 1 a.m. May 1, after more than eight hours, the fire was declared contained. But it wasn’t true yet.
Crews found another fire on the second floor about 3:30 p.m. that day, 23 hours after the blaze began. The crew commander finally declared the fire all the way out at 2:51 p.m. May 3, nearly three full days from the first 911 report.
The fire left a charred, hollowed and collapsing building in the middle of Jerome’s small downtown. The scene would later become an overgrown crater and vacant lot covered in trash and graffiti.
If you’ve heard little about the people the fire displaced, it’s understandable — most are Mexican and Peruvian immigrants. Many are here legally, others not. Almost all work long hours on dairies and farms and speak little English. Some are here with their husbands, wives and children, while others send much of their earnings back to families in their native countries.
Twenty-one joined a lawsuit against building owner Sylvia Moore and manager Eladio Duarte, though six dropped out because they were fearful, intimidated or just too busy working and rebuilding their lives.
They rarely speak up or step out of line or draw attention to themselves — even when they feel wronged, even when they feel that Moore and Duarte were slum landlords who violated building codes and zoning laws and acted unethically.
Moore and Duarte would likely challenge those claims — they did just that in court over the past two years — but both declined to comment for this story. Both cited the lawsuit as reason for not speaking to the Times-News, though a judge dismissed the suit and the window to appeal came and went.
But now, with the lawsuit over and little legal recourse left, the displaced former residents of the burned building are speaking out. They’re telling of loss and devastation. And they’re telling of faith, rebuilding and hope.
In the face of rising nationalism, and in the face of President-elect Donald Trump — who campaigned by characterizing people like them as rapists and criminals stealing jobs from the white working class — the people displaced by Jerome's historic fire are standing up for themselves and telling their stories.
‘You’re just a slum landlord’
Peruvian immigrant Maximo Toledo, sponsored by a sister already living in the U.S., waited 10 years for his immigration papers to come through in 2009. One of the only tenants at home when the fire started, Toledo lived with his wife, Carmen, and their four children in a small, two-bedroom apartment with no windows or ventilation.
The Toledos did not have a smoke detector in their apartment, nor did any of the other similarly small, cramped apartments, according to the tenants' lawsuit. The building did not have fire-suppression sprinklers. And like the Toledos’ apartment, many of the living quarters were windowless, offered no ventilation and presented other dangerous conditions.
“We lived there because we needed to,” said Carol Garcia-Guzman, 43, a tenant who lost everything she had in the fire. “It wasn’t a fancy place to live. It’s what we could afford.”
When the drain in the Toledos’ shower clogged, water backed up in Garcia-Guzman’s bathtub, she said. But the Toledos and Garcia-Guzman’s family were some of the lucky ones with their own bathrooms; some tenants shared a common toilet and a shower situated behind a washer and dryer.
Moore and Duarte, according to the former tenants, constantly built new apartments and found ways to squeeze in more renters, despite conditions in the existing apartments. Garcia-Guzman and Rubi Madrigal, a young mother of two boys, said Duarte was building a 100-square-foot studio for Madrigal’s brother at the time of the fire. Moore planned to charge $500 a month for the tiny living space, supplied with power from Garcia-Guzman’s meter.
Meanwhile, Madrigal’s small, windowless apartment presented a slew of its own problems, she said, some dangerous and others simply annoying. In one room, sparks flew from the outlet whenever Madrigal tried to plug something in. Duarte’s solution, she said, was to run an extension cord from a functioning outlet into the room with the sparking outlet.
And without ventilation, Madrigal was subject to the smells of her closest neighbors, six Peruvian dairy workers who lived in a windowless two-bedroom apartment. The smell of their cooking food at night permeated her apartment, making the pregnant Madrigal so nauseous she would vomit.
“There were no smoke alarms; my room was completely dark because there were no windows,” Madrigal said in Spanish. “The Peruvians always had their lights on because they had no windows, just like me.”
After the fire, Moore acted as though she were a victim just like the tenants, Garcia-Guzman said. In a 2013 Times-News interview, Moore said: “My heart was in that building … It was my retirement plan.”
That didn’t sit well with displaced renters who lost everything but the clothes they wore and lived on the charity of the Red Cross and community donations.
“It took her over three weeks to finally give back our deposits,” Garcia-Guzman said. “Some didn’t get back the full deposit because she said her power bill was over what she was supposed to pay. So I told her, ‘You’re just a slum landlord who is only looking out for yourself.’”
‘Boom! There’s the smoke’
While their two youngest children played in another room on April 30, 2013, Maximo and Carmen Toledo sat in the living room watching Real Madrid play Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals of the Champions League, a tournament featuring the best soccer teams from across Europe.
“We were just relaxed — tranquilo,” Maximo said in Spanish during an Oct. 14 interview at the home he rents in Jerome. “My daughter came out of the room, and she said, ‘Papa, there’s smoke!’”
Maximo ran to the kitchen, the most likely place for smoke, but all was calm there. He began searching the rest of the apartment, then his daughter told him there was even more smoke. He opened the front door, which led into a hallway.
“And boom! There’s the smoke,” Maximo remembered. “It had already been in another room, in another apartment.”
Maximo yelled for his family to get out — “Que vayan saliendo, vayan saliendo!” — and led them outside to clean air. He went back in, hoping to save a laptop computer.
“I didn’t make it far with all the smoke,” he remembered. It stung Maximo’s eyes. “I ran out crying, crying, right back out the door. And then I didn’t go back in. So all of my stuff burned, everything. Everything.”
For living in a small apartment, the Toledos had a lot: two refrigerators stocked with food, a big-screen television, three smaller televisions, a stereo, the laptop, video game consoles, jewelry and everything else that stockpiles after years of living in one place.
Others told stories of similar loss, with their personal twists.
Garcia-Guzman and her husband lost everything, including a collection of 300 dolls she was saving for her granddaughter. The Peruvian dairy workers next to Madrigal had recently purchased, slaughtered and frozen a lamb, planning to eat it little by little.
“Every time they would come home, they would prepare a piece,” Maximo said with a laugh. “The whole lamb burned up all at once! We always remember that.”
The lamb that went to waste, cooked all at once, is a favorite story of the Peruvians who lived in the building, something they can all laugh at now.
One of them, Percy Quinto-Cochachi, also lost watches, digital cameras, clothing and $1,800 from a paycheck he’d cashed.
Gabriel Enriquez-Ramos still has a handwritten list of the things he lost in the blaze, including $1,200 cash, a laptop, a new saxophone and a 30-inch TV.
Madrigal, who had a toddler and newborn at the time, lost a big-screen TV, $2,000 she’d saved for her son’s birth expenses, a stereo, two cribs, baby clothes and a room full of diapers she’d bought throughout her pregnancy.
But most devastating for many of the tenants, especially Maximo Toledo and the six Peruvian dairymen, was the loss of personal documents: passports, children’s birth certificates, residency and immigration papers.
The Toledos had spent 10 years trying to come stateside, while Quinto-Cochachi and Enriquez-Ramos came on precious work visas. In minutes, their most important documents burned.
Maximo had prepared for something like this and made copies which he kept in a secure place away from his apartment. Yet even with that security measure, it took him three years and almost $5,000 to get his family’s documents in order. That included a trip to Boise, where immigration officials interrogated them despite their legal residency status, and several ill-fated trips to the Peruvian consulate in Utah.
The paperwork hassle kept Maximo from travelling back to Peru to visit family until 2016, more than three years after the fire.
‘Not the goal … to let it erode and die’
There is an alternate universe in which the market and apartments that burned that April day still stand. The red bricks have not been charred and crumbled, then knocked down by a demolition team. The facade still features a mural with lakes, snow-capped mountains and evergreen pines. People still come and go from the market, which advertises in white letters over green paint "frutas y verduras" — fruits and vegetables.
This alternate world is on Google Maps’ street view, which for downtown Jerome was last updated in August 2012. It shows Main Street on a clear, sunny day, the classic-looking building still erect.
Reality is a stark contrast: a large crater where that handsome red brick once stood. The lot east of that building is also vacant; the restaurant once there, damaged by smoke, was also demolished. The vacant lots are overgrown with weeds, while the crumbling foundation of the old apartment building is covered with graffiti.
A chain-link fence lined with a green tarp runs along Main Street where the market entrance once was, only partially obscuring the burned lot from passers-by. The backsides of both lots are exposed, the whole ugly thing a reminder of the historic blaze and its unpleasant aftermath.
“It doesn’t look good for the town,” Jerome City Administrator Mike Williams said Nov. 7, standing on the former restaurant lot. “We’d rather not look at it.”
When it displaced 41 people, the fire also scarred Jerome. The fortunes of these rundown lots are knit closely to the fortunes of the city’s downtown.
“Downtown Jerome has been in a state of decline for 30 years,” Williams said. “There hasn’t been a whole lot of investment down here.”
There’s not much the city can do about the vacant lots on Main Street, Williams said. Moore still owns hers, while the one next to it belongs to a family in California. Both feature "for sale" signs that have seen better days.
Elsewhere, Jerome is hopping.
“The last couple years, there’s been a lot of real positive things happening,” Williams said. “There’s business growth and development, the new high school that went in looks awesome, we’ve had a lot of new people move here.”
Downtown's ugly crater is the exception.
“That is one thing still that the community really does want to feel better about,” Williams said. “But that hasn’t happened at the speed we’d like it to.”
The city hoped potential development projects would solve the problem quickly, but none panned out.
“Temporary beautification or site improvement is potentially where we go next,” the city administrator said.
Williams wasn’t working in City Hall at the time of the blaze — he was appointed a year later following Polly Hulsey's resignation. Hulsey cited personal reasons for her resignation, but both she and Fire Chief Jack Krill stepped down in the months that followed a controversy when the city sent a $96,701 bill to Moore, then retracted the bill and apologized for the mistake.
The bright, energetic Williams, a Jerome native in his mid-30s, is optimistic about the future of downtown. But he’s also realistic.
He knows new businesses coming to Jerome want South Lincoln Avenue locations near Interstate 84. He knows the city’s two-year-old downtown urban renewal area doesn't yet have sufficient funds to buy the properties if it wants to. He knows the cross streets in downtown lead to major highways and interstates, bringing heavy vehicle traffic that doesn’t promote pedestrian use. And he knows all about that 30-year history of decline.
Yet he also knows one large employer ready to invest in downtown could change everything.
“My personal opinion is, we need the one champion to come down and invest so the community can see it,” Williams said. “Success breeds success. You see it on South Lincoln; everybody wants to go out there because that’s the happening spot in town. … We’re searching for our champion. It’s not the goal of the community to let (downtown) erode and die.”
Williams said he feels for those who lost their apartments and belongings in the blaze, but the empty lots now can be an opportunity to build something better, to start fresh.
“Downtown is the symbolic center of the city,” Williams said. “People want to feel better about downtown. It’s part of our strategic plan to do something.”
‘It’s not about taking her money’
Anyone looking to rebuild a better downtown Jerome — that "one champion" — could look to the example of the burned building's former tenants.
While they’ve all struggled, they’ve also rebuilt their lives, in many cases with better conditions. The Toledos rent a nice home not far from Jerome High School that they share with Enriquez-Ramos and another Peruvian dairyman who lived in the old building.
Madrigal rents a small home that she keeps impressively clean, roomier than it looks from the outside. Her two sons live there with her every other week.
Garcia-Guzman lives just a few blocks from downtown — near the ruins of her former home and its bad memories, but also near the Jerome County Judicial Annex, where the tenants waged their legal battle against Moore and Duarte. Garcia-Guzman was the driving force behind the civil lawsuit that sought to hold the owner and manager accountable for the poor living conditions that she believes contributed to the fire's rapid spread and destructiveness.
While about half of the displaced tenants joined the lawsuit, none looked to get rich off the tragedy, Garcia-Guzman said. Even if they did, it wasn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. 5th District Magistrate Judge Eric Wildman dismissed the case in September, about 17 months after it was filed.
“It’s not about taking (Moore’s) money,” said Garcia-Guzman, a leader, advocate and translator for others who lived in the building.
“It’s about her having buildings that weren’t safe, breaking all these codes and getting away with it,” Garcia-Guzman said, adding that Carmen Toledo, Maximo’s wife, was in a wheelchair at the time. “It would have been so sad if she didn’t make it out because Sylvia didn’t care about safety.”
The lawsuit, which hinged on the lack of smoke detectors in the apartments, originally sought about $250,000 from Moore. The 21 plaintiffs each sought damages between $10,000 and $35,000 after filling out forms regarding the costs of their losses. When the suit was dismissed in September, their pro bono lawyer said he could no longer continue with the case, and the tenants didn’t have money to hire another lawyer for an appeal.
Long before there was a lawsuit, the ordeal became personal to Garcia-Guzman, originally from El Paso, Texas. A U.S. citizen by birth, bilingual and well educated, she felt responsible for fighting for the rights of the other tenants.
While at the Red Cross shelter set up at the Jerome fairgrounds, Garcia-Guzman and others continuously called Moore, she said, but the landlord didn’t pick up the phone. About a week after the fire, Garcia-Guzman went back to the burned-out building to do a TV interview. Within five minutes of being on the property, she said, she received a call from Moore saying she couldn’t be there.
“I said, ‘You know what, Sylvia? I tried calling you for a week and you never picked up,’” Garcia-Guzman remembered during an Oct. 5 interview at the Jerome Public Library. “‘And now you call me to tell me not to cross a fence? There are signs in English and Spanish, and I’m fluent in both of them.’ I said, ‘You’re telling me this right now? Really?’”
Moore started to cry and said she was a victim, too, Garcia-Guzman remembered.
“At that moment, she pissed me off,” Garcia-Guzman said. “I said, ‘You know what, Sylvia? You have a house, you have a bed, you have a kitchen with dishes and food; we have nothing. You didn’t care about us. We called you all week long, and you never picked up.’”
According to Garcia-Guzman, Moore said her attorney told her not to pick up her phone or speak to anybody.
“I said, ‘Sylvia, we weren’t just anybody, we were the people living in your building that lost everything,’” Garcia-Guzman remembered. “I wore the same clothes for three days because I had no clothes. I told her, ‘You’re really pissing me off. You can take your tears and go somewhere else. I have no sympathy for you. You couldn’t even show up to the fairgrounds and ask if we needed water or a blanket, or something? Sylvia, I have no sympathy for you.’ And I hung up on her.”
Time has not eased Garcia-Guzman’s feeling of responsibility for the other tenants. At the library, tears streaked her face as she talked about the lawsuit's dismissal. Those here illegally, and even those here legally on work visas, were afraid of repercussions from joining the lawsuit, she said.
“I felt like I let them down,” Garcia-Guzman said. “Since the very beginning, when we were at the fairgrounds, they all came to me, they all told me they needed help. I would be the one to help them … I felt like it’s my duty to help them. My apartment was the biggest one, I had more things than anyone else.”
On Nov. 1, Garcia-Guzman met several of the former tenants at Maximo Toledo’s home. After everyone finished large bowls of a Peruvian noodle soup, Garcia-Guzman broke the news: The deadline to appeal the lawsuit had passed. Their chances of winning any damages were done.
“I have to ask forgiveness from you all that I couldn’t do more,” Garcia-Guzman said in Spanish to the group around the table, raising her glasses to wipe away tears. “Unfortunately, they sided with them … Sylvia and Duarte beat us … And there wasn’t much else we could do.”
Quinto-Cochachi told Garcia-Guzman that was nonsense, that she had no reason to ask forgiveness. The important thing, he said, was that everything lost was material, and he thanked God that nobody died in the fire.
“Thank you, thank you for driving this case, for wanting to help us, more than anything,” Quinto-Cochachi told Garcia-Guzman. “You fought for all of us.”