Don Toto knows his neighbors.
And as a neighborhood watch captain for his block, he expected a peaceful Thursday night in the gated community near Fort Apache and Iron Mountain roads.
To the left of his house, Brian and Lisa Hewitt, their two sons, five dogs and three cats were safe and snug for the night.
In the house to the right, Warren and Peggy Brown and their two house guests from Memphis, Tenn., had finished their barbecue hours before at 9209 Empire Rock St.
Everything was as it always was. Or so it seemed.
No one was prepared for the blaze that tore through the Browns’ home shortly before midnight, least of all Toto, whose house sits within touching distance of his neighbors’ homes.
Toto smelled smoke around 8 p.m. but couldn’t find the source despite driving through the area to locate it.
“My biggest regret is that I didn’t sense that this was a real fire, not a barbecue or a bonfire,” he said.
“All of a sudden, it exploded into a mass of flames, and now it’s too late. It’s too late.”
Lucie Toto was awakened by Peggy Brown’s frantic fists against her door. By the time she got there, Peggy wasn’t there, but she saw orange flames licking at the midnight sky through the window.
She ran outside to look for Peggy and Warren, friends and neighbors for about eight years, but couldn’t locate them.
“Were they out?” Lucie Toto wondered. “That’s all I wanted to know. All I want is for them to be OK.”
It wasn’t until the morning that they discovered their friends had survived, but their guests had not.
“That was my biggest concern last night, to have them be rescued because we couldn’t see them,” Don Toto said.
Peggy was taken to University Medical Center for smoke inhalation, and Warren was being treated in a burn unit.
“I spent the night praying and hoping that they were OK. I was so worried about (them),” Lucie Toto said. “The whole neighborhood was out. Everyone cares about everybody.”
The Totos, whose house suffered some heat and water damage, were joined by neighbors, including the Hewitt family, who were asked to leave their house because of the proximity of the buildings.
“There were flames coming up through the roof,” Brian Heweitt said. “It just lit up the whole neighborhood. The house was just such an inferno.”
The Hewitts were awakened by another neighbor, who let the kids and pets take up temporary residence in her house.
“It brought every neighbor out there,” Lisa Hewitt said. “It was almost like a beautiful and horrible thing at the same time. Everyone is talking about getting together, doing something nice for the family.”
“We met some neighbors that we hadn’t met before,” her husband added.
The Hewitts were fairly new arrivals to the neighborhood, but quickly felt at home in the close-knit community.
They moved in October, and during a December housewarming, they befriended several neighbors.
They met Peggy around Christmas, and “she just treated us like we were old friends,” Brian Hewitt said. “She’s very pleasant, very nice. You can just go up to talk to her. She is very gracious.”
Lucie Toto describes Warren as a big Teddy bear. “A lovely guy.”
The fire was a wake-up call for Brian and Lisa Hewitt, who re-evaluated their own fire safety plan, including how long it would take to get all four of them and their extended four-legged family out of the house.
It also made them appreciate the important things in life.
“It brings it all back to what really matters,” Lisa Hewitt said.
“Above anything else, it makes you appreciate everything you have,” Brian Hewitt said. “It made us cherish our kids and animals even more.”
Don had some realizations of his own, and prayed for strength for the Brown family.
“A tragedy like this, it’s just devastating,” he said. “I hope their faith is strong enough to get through it. They’re good people.”
Firefighters fought the deadly flames throughout the night, finding the first guest immediately inside the house and the second person just before 4 a.m., according to Las Vegas Fire Department spokesman Tim Szymanski.
The cause of the fire is under investigation. The two people who died have not been identified by the Clark County coroner’s office.
Contact reporter Rochel Leah Goldblatt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0381.