MUSCATINE—Greg “Bibo” Aguilar, 22, had just begun his long walk home to his aunt’s house on Newell Street on the evening of Feb. 25. Darkness was settling in.
He was coming from the Muscatine County Boxing Club several blocks away and was walking southwest down New Hampshire Street and listening to music through his headphones when he smelled smoke. He was crossing Clinton Street, which New Hampshire intersects with, when he spotted smoke coming from up the street.
So, he opted to walk up the street and check it out. He still saw smoke over the house at 104 Clinton Street.
“And I think well, maybe somebody is just having a fire in their back (yard), so I just keep going forward,” Aguilar said.
He gets a little past the house where the fateful fire would kill three people that night, “and I take a glance at the house when I could and the front was kind of fine." He was walking diagonally across the street. “But I could see through a side window of the house that there’s flames everywhere inside the house," he said. "So automatically, I started running toward the house, and I pull out my phone.”
First, he yelled at a car passing by to stop and assist him, but the driver kept going.
So Aguilar immediately called 911 and reports the fire.
“They tried to calm me,” he said earlier this week, recalling the entire night. “It was wild is all I know.”
He usually does not walk up Clinton, so when he was asked where he was, he tells the dispatcher Hershey is the road leading to Pete’s (Tap). Pete's is actually about three blocks farther down from the house on fire, a full three blocks from Hershey Avenue.
Aguilar decides to walk up to the front door. “Before I could even open the door, you could hear a bunch of noises,” he said. “I stay there a second… I open the door.”
He feels something brush against him. At first, he thought it was a person. “What I thought was a person starts touching my feet,” he said. “I was startled a bit; I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t a person; it was four or five cats whining and everything.”
He opens the door again.
'Is anybody there?'
“I was walking slowly and everything,” Augilar said. “I open the door, and I am like, ‘hello, is anybody here?’ There was no response for a second. And then I took a couple of steps (inside the front door.)
“Nothing but smoke, I can’t see anything, so I take a step back. I stand outside, right outside the door.
“I shout again. I am on the phone (with 911), and we’re talking at the same time. It was like intervals. It was then (that) I heard a yell, which sounded like a scary (yell). It didn’t sound like someone in pain. It stopped.
“It was silent like 30 to 45 seconds, and I hear a man yell. In between, I am like yelling ‘stay down, cover your face.'”
He then heard the man again. “He sounded like he was in agony. That’s when I am like ‘get to the window, get to the window.’”
Aguilar says he was a couple steps inside the door for about 5-10 seconds. He can tell there’s a stairwell.
Meanwhile, 911 personnel are trying to figure out where the house is. By now, darkness has set in. So Aguilar gets out of the house to check the street “real quick.”
He returns to the house. “That’s when I heard the yell from the woman,” he said. “And this is all from my left ear.”
He thinks he’s hearing someone upstairs in the house, though, later learns no one was found up there.
He then hears the man again, from the right side of the house. “It sounded like agony,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar is still on the phone with 911.
“I was like, ‘I think there’s somebody upstairs. I am like ‘hurry, hurry, please. I know there’s people in there.’ She was telling me, ‘We are going there as fast as we can. We want to be there, too.’”
At this point, the first officer arrives on the scene. In the darkness, Aguilar doesn’t think the officer notices where the fire was at. “He pulled up, and I had to wave 'em down a little bit,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar begins working with the officer and gets off the phone.
Before the officer pulled up, he shouts into the house again, ‘where are you at?’
But there was no answer.
He eventually thought he heard the man saying something. “I tried to communicate, tried to see where they were at. He was saying something.
“I was like, ‘where are you guys at? I knew people were coming, so I was like trying to figure out where they were at. There were pauses. I didn’t get no response. I didn’t know if they could hear me (inside).’”
He doesn't feel like a hero
Now, nearly three weeks later, he feels terrible that they might have only been able to hear him but do nothing.
“I am thinking to myself, ‘it sucks that they had to hear me … but at the same time I was nervous. I was yelling. I was scared. Maybe they heard it like that.”
He tells the officer he thinks there’s people upstairs.
It’s a confusing night. What began as a simple but long walk home from boxing, had turned into a life-and-death situation in an area Aguilar really did not know.
Aguilar and the officer start yelling into the house. “Then like briefly for a second, we hear another yell,” Aguilar said. He believes it’s from the living room, inside the front door.
The officer yells, ‘are you OK?.’
Aguilar then sees the officer break a window. He recalls hearing one more response. “That was like the last response we got; that was like the last of anything.”
The fire department arrives, assesses things. “Somebody went in there,” Aguilar said. “And they weren’t in there for long, and then they came out. Then they started putting the fire out.”
Aguilar believes the lone survivor, Brian Wentz, jumped out the window possibly before the first officer arrived. “There were crashes and everything before the first officer showed up,” he said. “I don’t know what those sounds were and everything.”
He was found, hanging over a fence, by a neighbor and a second arriving officer, Aguilar said.
He recalls Wentz being asked who else was in the house. “All’s he said was his daughter was in there.”
In his memory, the soft-spoken Aguilar recalls the entire fire as being “confusing.”
The officers learn from Wentz there’s more people in the house. About that time, the fire trucks arrive and soon the firefighting begins.
Aguilar grabs his backpack in the front yard and begins to head home. First, he stops and thanks the first arriving officer.
To this day, Aguilar struggles with the thought that he’s a hero, despite the fire department calling him one.
“I feel like, I don’t know …. If I was hearing somebody, I should have just run in, even though I would have went upstairs because that’s where I was hearing (a voice) from. Just so I would have known like I put my absolute all into saving somebody.”
The fire department, through its release, disagrees. They are emphatic that Aguilar should not have run into the fire, and no one should, other than trained and equipped firefighters.
Aguilar, a Muscatine High School grad, suffered no smoke inhalation problems and no injuries. The man who has been called “Bibo” as long as he can remember, still thinks about the night he came across a fire on the way home from the boxing club.
“I keep thinking I would do things differently,” he said. “But at that moment I was thinking differently. I felt like I was hearing the voices upstairs.”
He wipes his eyes as the nearly 20-minute interview comes to an end. He’s not sure if he wants to meet the man whose life he’s credited with saving. He would like to attend services for the two girls, Andreah Schroeder, 17, and Lily Wentz, 6, and their mother, Amy Wentz, 35, but in a way he could go unnoticed.
It’s clear he still wonders if things could have turned out differently. “If I was like 15 minutes earlier, 10 minutes even,” Bibo Aguilar said, “things could have been different.”
A humble, likable, young man, about an hour after the interview, he messages and asks if he could just add one more thought: “That I hope and want others to look out for one another.”