Man witnessed jumping from Denver blaze says God was present

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

Elías Venegas, 53, the man who was witnessed hanging from the third floor trying to escape the raging fire that rapidly consumed the construction site at 18th and Emerson on Wed., March 7, says he was not alone. He has no broken bones and suffered no organ damage or concussion. He’s simply sore.

“I felt that God was there and that he acted. He was protecting me,” Venegas told the Denver Catholic. “That’s how he manifests himself in our lives.”

Venegas was the person farthest away from the exit, as he was on the roof of the five-story building when the fire broke out.

“I finished eating [on the roof] and told one of my co-workers I had to call my wife,” he said. “So, I walked away from them, who were next to the ladder, to the opposite side of the roof. And as I was walking back, I saw smoke coming up one side of the building, and yelled to warn them. If I hadn’t walked that way to call my wife, I don’t know what would have happened.”

He remembers the next few seconds confusedly, but he recalls running behind his colleagues down to the third floor, where authorities believe the fire originated. There, he encountered a thick cloud of black smoke, so much that he lost sight of his co-workers and could barely see the ladder leading to the second floor. It was almost completely dark.

“I decided not to go down. Something was telling me not to go through there,” Venegas said.

Instead, he ran to the first opening he saw, a balcony door that had wood studs running across it for safety. He got to the outside of the building and tried to swing himself to the second floor, but as he was hanging, he realized it was impossible.

There he was photographed by a witness, just as he was getting ready let go.

Elías Venegas was on the roof of the five-story building when the fire broke out and only had a few seconds to escape. (Photo provided)

“My arms got tired and my hands started burning. It was too hot,” Venegas recalled. “I looked down and thought, ‘I can’t jump, it’s too high!’

“I then remember letting go, and as I was letting go, I felt a cool breeze, as if someone had blown at my face. And I didn’t feel anything else. I don’t remember falling or landing. The next thing I remember is people around me asking me if I was OK. I got up confused and dizzy, but my only clear thought was that I had to call my wife.”

His co-workers, who had barely made it out safely, didn’t see him come out of the building and thought he hadn’t made it, so when they saw him on the street, they received him with much joy.

Venegas was taken to the hospital that afternoon and the following day for a general check-up, x-rays and other tests, but there was nothing wrong with him.

“I’m just a bit sore,” Venegas said with a smile on his face. “Everyone was amazed, even the doctors, that I had no broken bones or other serious injuries. The nurse, the security officer and my supervisor said it was a miracle that nothing happened to me jumping from that height.”

Venegas, who is a catechist at St. Pius X Parish in Aurora and a volunteer in other archdiocesan organizations such as the San Pablo School of Evangelization for the Hispanic community with his wife, Raquel, is mostly grateful for being alive.

“God didn’t want me there [in Heaven] because I have yet to finish my mission here on earth,” Venegas said. “It saddens me to think that two other workers couldn’t escape. I will be praying for them and their families.”

“I feel very grateful for this new opportunity that God has given me,” he said. “We proclaim a living God and I was able to experience that. He’s not just something that happened 2,000 years ago. He still acts in our present world. I’ve seen it and so have many other people.”

(Featured image from Denver Fire Department Facebook)

COMING UP: Getting ready for Synod-2018

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The headline on the March 3 story at the CRUX website was certainly arresting — “Cardinal on charges of rigged synods: ‘There was no maneuvering!’” The cardinal in question was Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and not only were his voluble comments striking, they were also a bit disconcerting. Did I simply imagine the uproar on the floor of the Synod on October 16, 2014, as bishop after bishop protested an interim report generated by Baldisseri and his colleague, Archbishop Bruno Forte, that did not reflect the discussions of the previous two weeks? Were the complaints about the suffocating Synod procedures Cardinal Baldisseri outlined prior to Synod-2015 an illusion? Didn’t thirteen cardinals write Pope Francis in the most respectful terms, suggesting alterations in those procedures to ensure the open discussion the Pope insisted he wanted?

But, hey, memory is a tricky thing, and this is the season of mercy, so let’s let bygones be bygones and concentrate now on Synod-2018, which will discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment. Those are very important topics. The Church in the United States has had some success addressing them, despite challenging cultural circumstances; so perhaps some American leaders in youth ministry and vocational discernment could be invited to Synod-2018 to enrich its discussion, on the Synod floor and off it (where is where most of the interesting conversations at these affairs take place).

Curtis Martin is the founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which is arguably the most creative campus ministry initiative in the post-Vatican II Church. FOCUS sends recent college graduates back to campuses as missionaries and has had such success in the U.S. that FOCUS missionaries are now working in Europe. There’s a lot the bishops at Synod-2018 could learn from Mr. Martin’s experience.

Then there’s Anna Halpine, president of the World Youth Alliance: a network of pro-life young people all over the world, who witness to the joy of the Gospel and the Gospel of life in an extraordinary variety of social and cultural settings. WYA has also designed and deployed innovative educational programs and women’s health centers that, building out from the Church’s teaching on the inalienable dignity of the human person, offer life-affirming alternatives to the moral emptiness of too many elementary school curricula and the death-dealing work of Planned Parenthood on campuses. Surely there’s something to be shared at the Synod from this remarkable enterprise.

Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa was the director of campus ministry at Texas A&M for eleven years, where St. Mary’s Catholic Center has set the gold standard in traditional campus ministry and created a model for others to emulate. Over the past twenty years, Konderla and his predecessors have fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than that school with the golden dome in northwest Indiana, while helping many Aggie men and women prepare for fruitful and faithful Catholic marriages. Bishop Konderla would make a very apt papal nominee to Synod-2018.

Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has taken up the mantle of the late Dr. Don Briel in creating a robust, integrated Catholic Studies program on his growing campus. Shea’s goal, like Briel’s, is to form mature young men and women intellectually, spiritually, and liturgically, so that they can be, in the twenty-first century, Pope Francis’s “Church permanently in mission.” He has things to say about how to do this, and Synod-2018 should hear them.

Then there is Father Thomas Joseph White, OP, a banjo-playing, bourbon-appreciating theologian of distinction who (with his Dominican brother, Father Dominic Legge) has created the Thomistic Institute, to bring serious Catholic ideas to prestigious universities across the U.S. The Institute’s lectures and seminars fill the intellectual vacuum evident on so many campuses today — the vacuum where thought about the deep truths inscribed in the world and in us used to be. Father White is being redeployed by his community to Rome this Fall, so he’ll be a #64 bus ride away from the Vatican. The Synod fathers should meet him, and perhaps he and Cardinal Baldisseri, an accomplished pianist, could jam.  

So by all means, let’s have “no maneuvering” at Synod-2018. But let’s also have some American expertise there, for the good of the whole Church.