Crystal Lujan was speaking to Evelyn Ortega, the co-owner of Legers Package Liquor Store, a little before midnight on Saturday when she saw flames shooting out of the Litherland home on Lee Drive.
“I turned around, and I saw a big flame, and I was like, ‘Oh my God. We have a fire,’” Lujan said.
Ortega turned around, and when she saw the flames coming out of the Litherlands’ garage, she quickly realized that the Litherlands would likely have trouble getting out of their burning home because of their age.
Meanwhile, off-duty Las Vegas Police officers Anthony Madrid and Michael Ortega, both recent graduates of the law enforcement academy, were leaving Legers when they spotted the fire.
Madrid ran across Seventh Street toward the house, and Michael Ortega followed.
Inside the bar, Evelyn Ortega let her patrons know that an elderly couple lived there, and the customers didn’t hesitate. They ran outside and across to Seventh Street to the home to try to help.
Among the customers was Sean Medrano, the owner of Northeastern Construction.
“It just happened so fast,” Madrid said. I was just concerned about helping people get out of that house.”
Madrid and Michael Ortega began banging on the front door.
“We knocked really loud,” Michael Ortega said. “We tried kicking the door in, but it didn’t give way.”
Michael Ortega said the next thing he knew, someone had thrown a rock through the window, and then Madrid finished breaking the glass and jumped into the house.
The situation inside the house was chaotic. Michael Ortega said they were yelling, trying to wake up anyone in the house. Two frightened international students who were staying with the Litherlands came out and pointed to the back bedroom where the Litherlands were.
Joyce and Ray Litherland were in bed.
Madrid rushed to the master bedroom and started helping Joyce Litherland out of the house. He said another man — Madrid doesn’t know who it was — held the door open and helped him with Mrs. Litherland.
Medrano said he was the other man who helped Madrid with Mrs. Litherland.
“They were in bed. They didn’t even know the house was on fire,” Medrano said.
Michael Ortega and one of the students who had been staying there focused their attention on getting Mr. Litherland out.
He said the house wasn’t smoky when they first go in, but it quickly started filling with smoke as they were about halfway through the house. They also started hearing popping sounds, as items inside the garage, where the fire started, began exploding.
The Litherlands were whisked out of the house and into the frigid night.
There were vehicles nearby, and the Litherlands, clad in their pajamas, and the students were put inside the vehicles to keep them warm. Mrs. Litherland was placed in a vehicle belonging to Josh Madrid while Mr. Litherland was put in a police vehicle.
“It was a little intense,” Medrano said. “We didn’t know what to expect. The fire was burning the garage pretty bad.”
Rescue crews arrived a short while after the occupants were pulled out of the house.
Las Vegas Fire Chief Phillip Mares said that besides his firefighters, the Gallinas and Sheridan volunteer fire departments helped them put out the blaze.
“The worst part of the fire was in the garage,” Mares said. “We’ve determined that to be the point of origin. The garage is what started on fire, and it spread from there.”
Mares said the state fire marshal will conduct the official investigation, and the cause has yet to be determined.
“We don’t suspect anything suspicious at this time,” Mares said. “We feel that it was an accidental fire, but it’s still yet to be determined.”
A vehicle parked inside the garage was completely destroyed.
Mares estimates that 35 percent of the home sustained fire damage with the rest sustaining smoke damage.
“The biggest problem that the firefighters had was stopping the fire in the attic,” the chief said.
Another problem firefighters faced was the frigid temperature, which hovered at about 11 degrees.
The water that crews were using to put out the fire was turning to ice.
“We had several guys fall down on the ice,” Mares said. “We’re lucky nobody got hurt. We had hoses freezing. We had trucks giving us trouble in the cold. It makes for a difficult situation, but everything worked out OK.
“It wasn’t me. My guys, they did a really good job in saving that home.”
Mares said the most important thing is that the people inside the home got out safely.
“That’s the most important thing,” he said. “We do not want to start the new year with a fatality.”
The Litherlands, who are the longtime majority owners of Community 1st Bank, and the two students staying with them escaped serious injury.
“Their health is fine,” Ernesto Salazar said of the Litherlands, who have been staying at a local hotel. Salazar, executive vice president at Community 1st Bank, arrived at the Litherlands burning home as firefighters were starting to arrive.
“Their spirits are great,” Salazar said. “They just want to thank the whole community that has come out with the overpowering support between food and lodging and clothing and everything else that they’ve offered. They would just like to thank everybody for what they’ve done.”
Streets around the home were blocked off for several hours, including Seventh Street, which was barricaded by the state Department of Transportation. Superior Ambulance, Las Vegas Police and Highlands police also assisted.
Evelyn Ortega, the co-owner of Legers, said she’s proud of the people who ran across the street to help. Besides the individuals already mentioned, others who ran to help were Frank “High-Roller” Montoya, Paul Crespin, Lawrence Arellanes, Crystal Baca, Mario Romero, Evan Madrid and Isaiah Chavez, according to Evelyn Ortega.
Salazar said the four people he’s aware of who helped the Litherlands were the two off-duty officers — Anthony Madrid and Michael Ortega — and Josh Madrid and Mike Romero.