Jesus Castaneda was barefoot and shirtless, straddling an upstairs bedroom window Wednesday morning, waiting for his fiancee to hand him three children as their house burned.
Through the black smoke, he saw Lydia Aponte, 31, with one of the boys, he said. But the smoke was so thick, he couldn’t tell if it was Isaiah Ortiz, 6, or Aiden Ortiz, 4.
Jesus, 28, reached for Lydia’s arm and felt a burst of air, he said. The bare foot he had wedged against the icy exterior of their Akron home slipped and he tumbled outside into the snow and minus-3-degree air.
Desperate to reach his family, Jesus said he ran to a sliding glass door, kicked in the glass and charged into the living room before flames pushed him back.
With his feet cut and bleeding, he next tried to get inside the burning Kenmore neighborhood home through a kitchen window, but firefighters arrived and pulled him back from the flames.
“It’s a horrible feeling to be standing there watching the fire, knowing what’s happening and not being able to do anything,” Jesus said. “I’d give anything to have them back.”
Lydia and her children — Isaiah, Aiden and Makayla Rose Montero, 10 — were found dead inside the 18th Street Southwest home Wednesday after firefighters put out the fire in the coldest temperatures to hit Akron in 25 years.
Investigators on Thursday continued to probe what may have started the fire in the 1924 home.
Jesus said he had no idea what caused the fire.
He said the family had working smoke detectors in the home — which they were buying on a land contract — but they never heard a shrill alert. Lydia, he said, had changed the batteries about a month before.
The family also had a working furnace, he said. During the day, Lydia, a stay-at-home mother, also used an electric faux fireplace space heater downstairs, Jesus said.
But she was careful to turn it off at night, something Jesus said he always double-checked before he went to bed.
“I tried to save them. I tried, really,” Jesus said Thursday through tears. “They were the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Jesus said he and Lydia met in Tampa, Fla. She worked at a Circle K convenience store and Jesus, a tow truck driver, often stopped there for something to eat or drink.
Lydia, who had three children, soon went to work as a dispatcher at the same tow truck company, and they began to date.
When Jesus wanted to move to Northeast Ohio to be close to his daughter from a previous marriage and his sister in Lorain, Lydia and the children came with him.
Jesus told Lydia she didn’t need to work. He made enough money working 80 to 90 hours towing semi-trucks, salt trucks and other large vehicles at Interstate Towing in Twinsburg to support the family.
“I told her we might not have everything we want, but we’ll have everything we need,” Jesus said.
In October 2017, the couple bought their Kenmore home on land contract from a company they paid in Canton, Jesus said.
Lydia’s children all enrolled at nearby Pfeiffer Elementary School on Ninth Street Southwest, which remained closed Thursday because of the ongoing freeze.
"The entire Akron Public Schools family is grief stricken that a wonderful young family, a family new to our community and a blessing to Pfeiffer Elementary School is gone,” Superintendent David W. James said in a prepared statement Thursday.
"We hope you will join all of us as we pray for these children, their mother and everyone who was close in their lives."
Jesus said Aiden was a daredevil who loved chocolate milk.
Isaiah had just started drinking Pepsi, loved to eat steak and on Monday learned he made the school’s honor roll.
And Maykayla “was the artist,” Jesus said. “She loved to draw. She even drew me a tow truck.”
Jesus and Lydia planned to marry in May 2020.
“She just told her mom on Tuesday,” Jesus said, adding that Lydia was still deciding between teal and brown or purple and blue as their wedding colors.
The morning after the fire, Jesus ran over the details of his life with strangers, as if trying to find a missing piece that may put it all back together.
He was dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt and boots that his boss bought him after the fire destroyed everything but the pajama bottoms he was wearing when he fell out of the window.
The final hours with his family were routine, never foreshadowing the tragedy to come.
On Tuesday evening, Lydia called Jesus at work, he said.
She had been battling a cold for a couple of days and the kids now had it, too. Lydia asked Jesus to stop and pick up some over-the-counter medicine on his way home.
Jesus said he bought Mucinex for her and a children's medication with a buzzing bee on the bottle for the children.
When he got home about 10 p.m., the kids were still awake because they already knew classes were canceled.
Dinner was waiting. Lydia made chicken thighs and macaroni.
Jesus said he ate two pieces of chicken while she and all three children took cold medicine before they all headed to bed.
The family slept until about 9 a.m.
“I woke up to a lot of black smoke,” Castaneda said. “I will never forget the sound the fire made. I just can’t believe this happened.”
Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725, email@example.com or @agarrettabj.