West Allis boy's heroism doesn't erase his sadness

He saved his little brother but couldn't save everyone from house fire

May 14, 2013

West Allis — West Allis Interim Fire Chief Gary Streicher described the moment as bittersweet, and indeed it was for young Joel Gonzales.

Joel, 13, was honored at last week's West Allis Common Council meeting for rescuing his 4-year-old brother from a fire in which their older brother and a friend died. For his heroism, Joel received plaques from both the Fire Department and from Mayor Dan Devine.

But such honors, naturally, could not make up for the loss of a family member and a friend.

The fiery scene

In presenting the Fire Department plaque, Streicher described that night at the Gonzales home in the 1600 block of South 57th Street.

It was 3:30 a.m. March 17 when Joel was awakened by pounding on the door by downstairs neighbors. Joel quickly found his little brother Kendall in thick smoke and heat, and carried him to safety.

When he tried to run back into the home to get the others out, he was driven back by the fire that had already reached the steps. The same thing happened to firefighters who also tried to get up the back stairs to rescue the children, Streicher noted.

It was probably a matter of seconds before Joel and Kendall wouldn't have been able to escape at all, Streicher said after the ceremony. The fire was already rolling and intense by the time firefighters arrived.

"He's a true hero," Strecher said in his presentation.

Devine said that but for Joel's courage the outcome could have been so much worse.

Hard to be happy

The slender young hero could barely manage a smile as he accepted the tributes from city officials. Joel returned to his seat in the audience with family and friends around him and sat mostly gazing at the floor.

A woman behind him wiped a tear away.

Indeed, the ceremony of heroism was a sad occasion for those in attendance.

"He had tears in his eyes," said Alderwoman Kathy Probst, who was among the officials who went over to say a few words to the Lincoln Elementary School student during a break after the ceremony.

And all down her side of the Common Council table, Probst said she could see that aldermen were affected by the youngster's story.

"We all have kids," she said.

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