AKRON, Ohio — Jesus Castaneda finished his shift as a tow truck driver Tuesday night, had chicken thighs and macaroni for dinner and agreed to allow his fiancee's children to stay up late because the polar plunge canceled school for Wednesday.
It was another normal evening at the family's home at 2050 18th Street Southwest in Akron's Kenmore neighborhood.
But less than 12 hours later, life was turned upside down after a raging fire tore through the house, killing Castaneda's fiancee, Lydia Aponte, 31, and her three kids: 10-year-old Makayla Montero, 6-year-old Isaiah Ortiz and 4-year-old Aiden Ortiz.
"You hear about it all the time, but you never think it's gonna happen to you," Castaneda said as he choked back tears. "I don't know what to do. I lost everything."
Sounds from the fire and the smell of the thick smoke woke up Castaneda in his second floor bedroom setting off a scramble to find the kids.
Castaneda recalls seeing Lydia grabbing and holding one of the boys, but he couldn't tell which one.
"She grabbed one. I went back. I opened the window. I gasped for air. I turned around and the flames were there. I told her, "Run towards me. If you get burned, it doesn't matter.'"
Castaneda raced barefoot to the bedroom window and was preparing to drop the kids to safety, but as he put one foot on an icy windowsill, he tumbled out of the window.
"I felt a big push of air. I lost my grip. I didn't have no shoes on. I fell from the second story. I fell down," he said.
Castaneda said he tried to get back into the burning home, but by that time Akron firefighters were on the scene and kept him outside.
"I tried to get them out. I couldn't get them out."
The intense fire grew stronger and firefighters were unable to save the mother and children.
"It's a horrible feeling," Castaneda said. "I'd give anything to have them back."
The older siblings were students at Pfeiffer Elementary School and the youngest was registered to attend in the fall.
Castaneda is not the biological father, but has been with the family for five years and loved the children as his own.
He remembered Aiden as a "little daredevil" and said Isaiah was very smart.
"He just made honor roll on Monday," Castaneda said.
He recalled Makayla as a sweet girl and a budding artist.
"She loved to draw. She drew me a tow truck."
Castaneda said Aponte was the love of his life and did everything for him. The couple planned to marry in May of 2020.
"That's my family," Castaneda said in disbelief. "That's my family, man."
Akron firefighters returned to the house on Thursday, but they were limited in evidence collection due to the brutal temperatures.
It could take days or week before a cause is determined.
Castaneda said he has no idea how the fire started. He said there was a heater - similar to faux fireplace - on the first floor, but the family was always careful to turn it off.
He said the funerals will take place in Florida where Aponte's immediate family lives.
Castaneda also lost all of his personal belonging, including his clothing, cell phone and vehicles, but his heart aches as thinks above moving forward without the people he loved so dearly.
"My fiancee. My kids," he said. "I loved them kids."
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