One day after losing her husband of 40 years, Esther Fernandez on Monday received more terrible news: The Garden Grove home she shared with him had been severely damaged by a fast-moving fire.
Fernandez, freshly grieving her husband's death, now finds herself homeless.
The double tragedy has rallied the far-flung Fernandez family to Esther's side. Relatives who started arriving for the funeral consoled her Monday in front of the home as cleanup crews worked into the night.
Fernandez, dabbing away tears, said she was still in shock but thankful that no one was injured in the blaze. Her house, she said, was going to fill with relatives coming in from across the country for the funeral.
"I thank God that no one got hurt," said Fernandez, 56. "I'm most grateful. There were going to be a dozen people staying here."
Fernandez's ordeal began on Sunday, when her 64-year-old husband, Mike, passed away after a long illness. She said he had suffered a stroke years ago and had been in the hospital since Thanksgiving.
Family members remembered Fernandez as a generous and loving uncle who loved playing with the many children and grandchildren of his 11 siblings.
"He was as close to Santa Claus as you can get," said Lou Cuevas, a nephew.
While Fernandez was making funeral preparations at a cemetery in Whittier, her family members congregated at her two-story home near the Garden Grove Freeway. They were preparing the home for the dozens of relatives expected to arrive for the services.
Then the fire broke out.
Fire Department officials said the blaze started about 4 p.m. in an upstairs bedroom and quickly raced through the attic. No one was injured, but half of the house was destroyed. The cause of the blaze is under investigation. Officials said it appeared to be accidental.
Cuevas, the nephew, said if the fire had occurred at night, many family members would have been inside. "It could have been an absolute tragedy," he said.
Fernandez said the funeral will take place Saturday as planned. And she expects eventually to move back into her home. In the meantime, Fernandez said, she'll spend some time alone with her daughter and grandson.
"My whole life was in there," she said. "[But] losing my husband . . . he meant more to me than my home."