What began as a normal Tuesday turned tragic for Robert Aparez and Michelle Mikkola, as a fire consumed their Oakland home, nearly all of their belongings and the lives of 10 rescue cats.
Oakland Police Department Lt. Angela Campbell was first to arrive to the home March 15. Already, more than 50% of the house was covered in flames.
“It was bad,” Campbell said. “The house was engulfed in flames.”
Soon, she learned from bystanders the home’s occupants still were inside.
“I thought, ‘Don’t second guess yourself; just do it,’” Campbell said. “We didn’t have time to talk through it or anything, we just had to react. Call it a mother’s instinct.”
Officer Rene Castro quickly went to the opposite side of the home — the west side of the house, which was the only part not engulfed in flames. Castro used a fire extinguisher to break a window and, with Campbell’s help, pulled Mikkola out of the burning home.
“Black smoke was everywhere,” Campbell said. “You couldn’t see an inch in front of your face.”
As Castro escorted Mikkola to safety, the victim informed officers Aparez still was trapped inside. He has multiple sclerosis and requires a wheelchair or walker to move.
Detective Shawn Dozier broke another window and, along with Campbell, took flashlights and started to yell for Aparez. After they located him, two officers pulled the victim out of the window to safety.
A few minutes after the couple was rescued from the house fire, Orange County Fire Rescue arrived on scene and began putting water on the fire.
The couple was transported to Orlando Regional Medical Center to be treated for smoke inhalation; the three officers were checked on scene and cleared.
“Our officers’ heroism and commitment to the public we serve were on full display as the three officers, working as a team, saved the lives of two Oakland residents,” Police Chief John Peek said. “As chief of police, I couldn’t be prouder.”
The State Fire Marshal’s Office investigated the cause of the fire and believes the fire to have been electrical, caused by something up in the attic.
Campbell said all the couple cared about was the safety of their pets left in the house.
“All they were worried about were their cats,” she said.
Mikkola is a longtime Candy’s Cats board member and volunteer who takes on challenging cases such as critical care for foster babies. She is a medical mentor for cat foster parents and is active in the Oakland trap, neuter and return community.
Candy Sullivan, owner of the rescue, said Mikkola is a “go-to person” for the organization and also has been its neonate bottle mom.
At least 10 cats perished in the fire, and many are injured or on the loose.
“Nothing prepared me for what I saw,” Sullivan said of seeing the home. “Nothing can prepare you for something like this. I keep calling Michelle a Warrior Princess, because in rescue, that is what we have to do in order to put the next foot forward.”
Campbell and Castro, along with a neighbor, managed to save one, Max, from the roof of the first floor and rushed him to an emergency veterinarian’s office, where he currently is recovering.
“He looked really bad,” Campbell said. “Parts of his skin had been burned off, and he was covered in soot and having problems breathing and walking.”
Cat rescue organizations and neighbors currently remain in the area searching for surviving cats. Three are believed to be on the loose.
“We’re forever grateful that Officer Campbell did what she did,” Sullivan said.
Campbell said the town has come together to help the victims.
“It’s all out everywhere trying to assist them, because they basically lost everything,” she said.
The couple currently is staying at Mikkola’s parents’ house and accepting donations such as gift cards and donations for the cats such as vet care, food, litter and medicines.
The couple is in need of medium and large plastic totes and boxes to repack and stack.
The community has helped to fulfill other needs already, including supplies, clothing and the donation of a wheelchair and walker — both of which were destroyed in the fire.
Because the couple rented the home, they also need an affordable place to live. Their only means of transportation was destroyed. The couple is searching for a used handicap-accessible RV or camper for temporary use.
“One hundred percent of the house was gone — just destroyed,” Campbell said.
Community member Sherrie Hutson has also started a GoFundMe campaign for the couple.
The page has raised more than $6,000 since its creation.
HOW TO HELP
Zelle: [email protected]
Go Fund Me: Click here