Nyssa family mourns death of father who died in house fire

Eva Amaral sorts through photos of her husband, Efren, Sunday evening. Efren Amaral Pacheco died in a fire Friday night that destroyed the Amaral’s trailer in Nyssa.  (The Enterprise – Kristine de Leon)

Update: Two Nyssa High School teachers are putting together a fundraiser raffle to gather donations for the Amaral family. The teachers are raffling off a custom metal art flag with a wooden backing. Tickets will be sold for $1/ticket or $5/six tickets. The raffle drawing will take place on Oct. 20 at 2:30 p.m., after the varsity girls soccer match.

NYSSA – As Efren Amaral Pacheco napped Friday night in his single-wide mobile home, the light down the hall in his bathroom shorted.

The 40-year-old farm laborer, worn from a day moving irrigation pipe, had settled onto a cot in the living room. He was alone.

His oldest daughter was at a church, his two sons were at the local high school football game and his wife moments earlier had taken their two youngest for a walk to the store.

The short turned into a fire and, according to fire officials, Amaral tried to escape.

He didn’t make it.

Firefighters worked for hours to quell the blaze. Once they did, they found Amaral’s body not far from his front door.

The fatality, officials said, was accidental, Amaral a victim of bad wiring.

That had been an issue before in the home the family bought just two months ago from a friend moving back to Mexico.

His widow, Eva, and their five children now are in temporary housing. They lost virtually everything. By Monday, the community had overwhelmed the family with clothing. Among the items destroyed was one son’s jersey for the varsity soccer team at Nyssa High School.

A fund drive is underway to help with funeral expenses and resettle the family. A funeral service has been scheduled for Monday, Oct. 15 at 5 p.m. at St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Nyssa before Amaral’s remains are returned to his native Mexico.

Relatives tell of a hard-working man, strict with his family but fond of soccer, friendly bets, and an occasional beer.

Eva Mendoza Amaral has but few photos left to remember her husband of more than 20 years.

Two days after the fire, she talked to a reporter in Spanish of the man she loved. She opened a black cloth bag and pulled out a wallet-sized family photo with him on the left and her on the right. Their daughter Jessica sat in Amaral’s lap.

She held out another that showed Amaral sitting on the floor, opening a wallet to show off the money he won that day gambling on Mexican soccer with friends. She pulled out another photo, saying it was from when they started dating. Efren and Eva stood side by side, holding each other’s hips. His black mullet curled at the back of his neck.

They both moved to Nyssa from Nayarit, a coastal province of Mexico. Both were drawn to the small Oregon town by older brothers who had moved there for agricultural jobs. Both wanted to be closer to family and to find their own work.

One of Eva’s brothers introduced them. Over the years after they married, the couple had five children, now ranging in age from 4 to 18.

Amaral demanded a lot of his children. He was a faithful Catholic even though he couldn’t attend services regularly because of his work. He expected his sons to respect their mother and care for her when he was gone.

Jessica, his oldest, said they both had tempers that fueled fights between them. She thought he could be overprotective at times and wouldn’t tell him whenever she was dating someone.

That’s why, Jessica said, it was so hard to tell him recently that she was pregnant.

She worked up the courage just Wednesday – two days before the fire.

“I was too scared to tell him,” she said, so she bickered with him instead, blaming her father for being tough to talk to.

Amaral figured it out.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

He told her he would help her “figure it out.”

A shared love of sport binded Amaral to family and friends. His kids enjoyed watching and playing as much as he did. His 15-year-old son Junior is varsity goalkeeper for Nyssa, although he doesn’t feel like he can play now that his jersey burned in the fire.

Amaral worked hard, relatives and friends said over the weekend.

He was employed by WBH Farms, which grows mostly onions, but also beets and corn. Until his duties changed earlier this year, Junior said his dad worked seven days a week to support the family.

“He always invited me to go to work with him,” he said, remembering childhood summers. “I would wake up at four or five in the morning to go to work with him in the fields. I would help him out in irrigation.”

The days were long. They often stayed out until 6 p.m. and, some days, close to midnight.

 “He taught me about how to work,” agreed another son, Francisco, 17.

With that hard work, Amaral bought the home in Nyssa, at the Fischer’s Place Mobile Home Park, a community of 38 homes west of downtown Nyssa.

The family was excited. They could be closer to loved ones in Nyssa and to Amaral’s work.

But only days after moving in, Jessica, now 18, saw sparks coming from an outlet in her bedroom and the wall felt warm. The family called 911, afraid of a fire inside the walls. Firefighters found no ignition, but recommended they replace the wall outlet. An electrician replaced it.

Then, on Friday night, Amaral got home about 8 p.m., two hours earlier than normal.

His two older sons were gone, already at the high school for the football game.

Jessica was gone too. She was in the parking lot of a Nyssa church with her boyfriend, waiting for her father. With him, they intended to call the boyfriend’s mother and sort out details about the coming baby.

At home, Amaral had dinner with his wife and two youngest children. Eva said she then decided to walk to Tex-Mex Express downtown to buy toilet paper. Amaral wanted 10-year-old Llarsemy to stay with him. Instead, the mother, Llarsemy and 4-year-old Leonardo left for the store.

So Amaral napped. He apparently was on the cot when the fixture sparked and the fire took hold at the rear of the home.

Meantime, Amaral’s wife got a ride from the store. Arriving about 9 p.m., she saw smoke and flames inside the family home.

Eva and her 10-year-old daughter screamed for Amaral to get out. They didn’t see him. They went into the home, trying to find him but the smoke was too thick. They had to run back outside.

Just as they got out, there was an explosion– a water heater burst. Firefighters later speculated that noise woke Amaral, but the home was choked with smoke by then.

Neighbors attacked the fire with garden hoses while others tried to break windows with rocks in an effort to save Amaral.

When a Nyssa police officer arrived on the scene at 9:17 p.m., he found Eva and her daughter yelling and screaming for Efren near a door. He opened it and crawled three feet on his hands and knees into the home before having to turn around, according the police report he filed.

As the homecoming game was ending a half mile away, Junior’s phone rattled with a text message from a girl who lived in his neighborhood.

“She told me everyone was outside and asked if everyone was OK,” Junior said.

He was confused, thinking she was asking about the hundreds of people outside for the football game.

She replied with a photo of his house engulfed in flames.

“I didn’t know what to do,” Junior said. He tried to find a police car to give him a ride, but officers had already left for the fire scene. From the visitor stands, people could see sirens and smoke. Junior, his brother Francisco, and two of their friends ran through fields and past the Mormon church toward home.

“I got there in seven minutes,” he said.

As he drew close, his mom called and that’s when he knew something was terribly wrong.

Jessica got a call, too, telling her that her home was afire.

After police arrived, officers told everyone to back up to make room for more than 20 firefighters from Nyssa, Parma and Ontario departments. They battled the blaze until after midnight.

That’s when they found Amaral.

On Saturday, dozens of friends and relatives gathered to support the Amarals in their grief and recovery.

Plastic lawn chairs were brought into the living room for extra seating. Visitors arrived with bags of tamales and other food that they stacked on the kitchen table. A mountain of garbage bags filled with clothes lined the counter.

The donations poured in from loved ones and strangers, from the American Red Cross in Boise, area fire stations, and churches. People throughout the area wanted to help after learning about the fire from Facebook or radio station La Grande 106.3 FM.

“They received a lot of help from the community. They appreciate all the help, all the donations and visits,” said Angelica Mendoza as she translated for Eva, her sister-in-law. The Amarals have been staying at her home since the fire.  “A lot of people knew him.”

On Sunday, the Amarals surrounded Mendoza’s kitchen table. Junior stood because he had given up his seat for a cousin. He watched family, friends and strangers come in the back door. As each arrived, they walked to his mother and told her in Spanish:

You’re strong.

This is a really tough time.

He was a great man.

We really loved him and we’re so sorry.

Let us know if there’s anything we can do.

When his mother hugged her best friend, Maria Ramirez, and cried into her shoulder, Junior teared up. Soon, everyone in the room was crying.

As he listened to the conversations about his father and the offers to help his now homeless family, Junior sometimes leaned onto the table, pressing down on his finger tips.

“He just did everything for us,” he said, tears again welling in his red eyes.

Junior looked across the table cluttered with Styrofoam plates stained orange from pizza. He watched his mom and sister. Llarsemy sat in his mother’s lap, covered in a pink fuzzy blanket. Eva hugged her daughter. Jessica sat nearby, and Leonardo ran from room to room, playing with toys. Francisco leaned against the fridge as more well wishers arrived.

For a moment, the family sat in silence.

Reporter Kristine de Leon: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.