Five families stood together in prayer at the Westover Baptist Church in San Marcos. Worry and somber veiled them as they prayed over their children they never thought would be gone so young.
A fire broke out July 20, 2018 at the Iconic Village and Vintage Pad apartments. It was a day San Marcos never expected to face, and one that took five innocent lives from the community.
Apartment residents Haley Frizzell, James Miranda, David Ortiz, Dru Estes and Belinda Moats fell asleep July 19, 2018, not knowing it was their last.
Flames consumed Building 500, the location five individuals were recovered. The night of the fire, students jumped from windows and individuals watched their belongings burn from across the street.
More than 200 residents were left displaced by the fire. Zachary Sutterfield, resident, had 70 percent of his body burned.
A year later, Troy and Cheryl Estes, Dru’s parents, are getting ready for a family road trip to Nashville.
Their youngest of five, Dru, was musically driven since he was a kid. He joined his middle school band and stayed in through college as a bass drum player in the Texas State marching band. He was involved in his church band growing up as well.
Dru’s parents said his 10-year plan involved opening a coffee shop in Washington where people could go play music.
The day before the fire, Dru unexpectedly drove to his San Antonio family home. Dru and his parents discussed a Tennessee trip for his 21st birthday a year in advance.
He hugged his parents and exchanged “I love you” before leaving. Cheryl said it was the last goodbye she knows God had given her and her husband.
Dru, a guitarist, singer and songwriter, acted as the last puzzle piece that completed the band, according to his bandmates. The band was called “Apt 216,” and was comprised of himself and roommates from Iconic Village.
Each of Dru’s roommates had been staying elsewhere at the time of the fire. The night before, Dru texted his girlfriend until he dozed off to sleep.
His parents, Troy and Cheryl Estes, believe he peacefully died in his sleep. His death certificate rules his death a homicide by thermal injuries and smoke inhalation.
“When he hadn’t called us (after the fire), I knew he was dead,” Cheryl said. “I feel like it happened yesterday; day 20 of every month is very hard and I relive that day over and over. (My husband and I) are not the people we were before. You’re not supposed to bury your children. He was an angel the whole time and God just took him back.”
Troy and Cheryl are left with coffee cups and a binder of drum music, the only items salvaged from Dru’s apartment. The fire chief sent the music to be preserved.
The parents and other fire victims spent time in Westover Baptist Church praying and receiving counseling the week of the fire. Days after the incident, the church provided breakfast, lunch and dinner to victims and families.
Pastor Jeff Latham, San Marcos chaplain, did not hesitate to open the church when he received a call from the San Marcos fire marshal about the fire displacing 200 individuals. Latham did what he felt was right in allowing the church to serve as a safe haven.
Since the morning of the fire, Latham has had the names of the five victims written on the side of his desk. He prays for them every day.
“My heart still continues to go out to those families on a daily basis, and I pray for them every day,” Latham said. “We offered them not just our church and building, but our hand, relationship and friendship for many years to come. We are still praying and want to see some justice come from knowing who set the fire at Iconic Village.”
Latham was there for families impacted by the fire through the painstaking time of waiting for their loved ones to be identified. He was one of the few to gently tell parents about their loss.
One of the victim’s family members who drove seven hours after hearing about the fire was James Miranda’s closest sister, Jessica Marlow. She relentlessly called him after he did not answer his phone July 20 last year.
Marlow said her husband, kids and two younger brothers immediately got in the car from Mount Pleasant, Texas and drove to San Marcos. The rest of the family flew there.
As Marlow’s mother told the family the fire marshal had said it was no longer a rescue mission but body recovery, Marlow said she felt a loss of breath and heaviness in her heart.
“(I thought) this couldn’t be real; this couldn’t be the way it ended,” Marlow said. “Some days are easier than others.”
Miranda’s family was left with none of his possessions following the flames. Marlow’s family had planned to visit Miranda in August of last year. In his memory, the whole family will be floating the San Marcos River July 20 this year.
“Who started the fire?” is a question that, one year later, no one has a clear answer to. The fire was ruled as arson on November 2018.
Latham said the community has better prepared for a tragic event. Church members have received a certification of emergency response for Hays County. There are now north, south, east and west churches in San Marcos that will assist the community in times of need.
“(The church is) planning on being here if our community needs us again; we’ll do it again,” Latham said. “We’re like the first responder of churches.”
As Iconic Village rebuilds, it will be constructing a memorial for victims of the fire. Student Government has called for a memorial on campus for the victims as well.
San Marcos stands with the families of the victims in their loss. There is talk between the fire chief and Latham about a commemoration event on the anniversary of the fire.