In the past 12 years, Patricia Hernandez has lost everything, and rebuilt her life, three times.
“It’s been hard for me. But when I think about it, I am so lucky,” she said recently, relaxing with her 7-year-old daughter in their immaculate, light-filled Sunnyvale apartment. “That’s all I think about – how lucky I am.”
Hernandez’s most recent brush with calamity was on June 20, when the apartment in which she had lived for three years was destroyed in a three-alarm fire. Hernandez, 35, was asleep when the 2 a.m. conflagration erupted in the two-story apartment complex just west of Highway 101 in Sunnyvale.
She awoke to her neighbors’ shrieks, which at first she thought emanated from a fight – so she stayed in her bedroom and called the police.
“I was scared. I just stayed down,” she said. “But then I heard an explosion.”
‘I was so nervous’
If she’d stayed in her bedroom much longer, she might not have survived. But when she heard fire trucks, she fled through the front door and spent the next three hours on the sidewalk, watching flames leap from the windows and the building dissolve into ashes. Luckily, her daughter, Emily, was in Mexico at the time visiting grandparents.
Hernandez photographed the fire on her phone. Every day she looks at the pictures, in awe that she survived.
“I was so nervous. I was crying,” she said. “But these pictures, they remind me how lucky I am.”
The fire started after a neighbor left a pot on the stove and fell asleep, according to the Sunnyvale fire department.
Hernandez lost everything but a couch and bed. Birth certificates, Social Security cards, family photographs, clothing, cameras, household items and her computer all were destroyed.
Gift of rent, security deposit
The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund, along with Sunnyvale Community Services, paid the $800 security deposit and first month’s rent for Hernandez’s new apartment, a one-bedroom unit not far from the restaurant where she’s worked as a waitress the past decade.
By the time Emily returned from Mexico, Hernandez had a new home ready, furnished with items donated by friends and charities.
Her optimism and resilience made an impression on the staff at Sunnyvale Community Services.
“Something like this was completely out of her control. She was really shattered by it,” said Hernandez’s caseworker, Maria Buenrostro. “But she’s surrounded herself with resourceful, good friends, and she has a game plan to move forward, always with a smile on her face. She’s very good at facing unexpected challenges and getting beyond them.”
Hernandez has some practice starting life anew.
In 2000, she emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, to the South Bay, leaving family behind and starting a new life where she knew no one.
In 2008, she left an abusive marriage and started from scratch once more, this time supporting herself and her daughter on her $8-an-hour wages as a waitress.
Her new apartment is tidy and comfortable, and her daughter is thriving. Hernandez relishes her quiet days and hopes for more of the same in 2012, she said.
“Patricia is really an example of how people can bounce back,” Buenrostro said. “She’s not just a role model for single parents, or immigrants, or people leaving difficult marriages. She’s a model for everyone.”