MERCED, Calif. (KFSN) -- An Army veteran is opening up about the fire that destroyed his Merced home and nearly everything he owned, including precious family photos of moments he missed while serving overseas.
Video recorded by the Merced City Fire Department captures the second fire that crews responded to at an apartment complex on 19th Street on the morning of January 14. The first flames broke out hours earlier.
Ruperto Rodriguez says, "There was a small fire that was by the closet, and my daughter's bunk bed was right next to that, and when I looked, she was all covered in smoke."
Rodriguez managed to get his 13-year-old daughter and nine and 15-year-old sons out of the apartment, but then he went back inside to save a lockbox full of family photos. Many captured moments he missed during his 12 years in the Army, including birthdays and holidays.
Rodriguez adds, "I had ultrasound pictures there, so once the kids were out I saw the box, and I just had throw water on it, and I was able to save the box from the first fire."
Rodriguez burned his feet, but before going to the hospital he put the charred lockbox back inside the apartment. He now blames himself because he believes that's what sparked the second fire while he was waiting at the E.R.
Firefighters rushed to the scene and protected the surrounding units.
They also saved Rodriguez's service dog, Butkus, with the help of equipment that was donated by a local Girl Scouts troop.
The bulldog provides physical and emotional support for Rodriguez, who says he was wounded by a suicide bomber while serving in Iraq in 2012.
Rodriguez says, "He sleeps with me. He makes sure that I'm okay."
Sadly crews were not able to save the family's puppy, Scruffy, the box full of photos, or their other belongings. Rodriguez's children are now staying with family friends, but he sleeps in his truck.
He says he was unable to get housing through the VA because he makes too much from his veteran's disability pay. It's money he has used to provide gifts for other families at Christmas and to support the Relay for Life.
But despite helping so many others, it's difficult for Rodriguez to ask for help himself.
He says, "People might see that I lost everything, but I have everything I need. My children are safe, and it's a blessing, friends and family, the support that I've had it's a blessing."
Rodriguez says he's thankful to the firefighters who saved his service dog and to the Red Cross volunteers who provided support in the days following the fire.
While he doesn't want to ask for donations, he says he would welcome a job opportunity that could help him get his family back into a home of their own.
Anyone who may wish to help can contact Rodriguez at: Perk61@gmail.com
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