N.J. Woman Who Escaped Massive Multi-House Fire Dies After Going Back Inside to Save Her Dog

Joelle Goldstein
·3 min read

Felicia Hernandez De La Cruz

A New Jersey woman was killed in a massive house fire over the weekend after she attempted to rescue her dog inside the burning building, according to authorities.

Paterson Police Director Jerry Speziale confirms to PEOPLE that the only victim from Sunday morning's blaze was identified as Felicia Hernandez De La Cruz, a 53-year-old woman from Paterson.

Speziale, who was at the scene of the incident, says he was informed by witnesses that De La Cruz initially made it out of the fire on her own. However, after realizing her dog was still inside, she reentered the burning building in an attempt to rescue her pet.

Sadly, the New Jersey resident never made it out and her body was recovered a few hours after the flames had been put out, the police director says.

"She and her family are in our thoughts and prayers," the police chief tells PEOPLE. "She's a Patersonian, so she's part of our family and it's extremely difficult."

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The massive blaze first broke out early Sunday around 2:30 a.m. on Summer Street, with two wood-structure homes completely engulfed by the flames, according to authorities.

Speziale says the call initially came in as a second-alarm fire but the blaze was so intense that it quickly worked its way up to a third, fourth and fifth alarm. (These numerical alarms indicate the level of danger and the amount of crew that needs to respond, according to Red Truck Fire.)

As a result, hundreds of firefighters from nearby departments — including Totowa, Prospect Park and Clifton — showed up at the scene to help put out the flames, which eventually spread to and damaged three other homes.

While authorities worked to put out the fire, they learned that De La Cruz had been missing after going back into her residence to save her dog, Speziale explains. It wasn't until 10:30 a.m. that morning that fire excavation crews went back to the extinguished site and recovered the woman's body.

In addition to the lone fatality, two firefighters suffered injuries in the blaze and were treated for non-life-threatening burns at Saint Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, according to Speziale. One of them had burns on their hand, while the other suffered burns to the side of their face.

The massive fire also resulted in a total of nine families, comprising of approximately 40 people, getting displaced from their homes, Speziale says, citing the Red Cross.

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Though he called De La Cruz's passing a "tragic, terrible loss," Speziale made sure to commend the responding fire departments for their quick actions, which prevented additional fatalities and injuries.

"The men and women of Paterson police and fire department are an extraordinary group of talented individuals," he says. "They are truly dedicated to the welfare, life and safety of our residences."

"Police officers, police lieutenants, sergeants captains, fire chiefs, myself, everybody was on scene and we had mutual aid from surrounding towns within moments," Speziale continues. "The response was exemplary. They did a hell of a job in battling a very difficult fire, [especially with] 40 people that could've perished."

At this time, it is unclear what caused the multi-house fire to break out.

The incident remains under investigation by the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office and the Paterson Fire Department, Speziale confirms.