Hector Montoya wasn’t allowed to watch the television news.
But while Sondra Banks’ back was turned one January evening, her grandson caught a glimpse of a news story about a Fort Worth fire that had claimed the lives of a woman and one of her twin daughters. The home, the news report mentioned, didn’t have a smoke detector.
“I thought that every house had a smoke detector. I have one,” said Hector, who was 8 at the time. “I asked my mom, ‘Why didn’t they have a smoke detector?’ She said some people do, some people don’t.”
Astonished by that, Hector devised a plan. He informed his family that he no longer wanted to use the $300 he’d been saving to buy a PlayStation 4. Instead, he wanted to spend his savings on smoke detectors for those who don’t have one.
“To prevent fires from happening, that was more important than a PlayStation,” Hector said.
Ten months later, thanks to business donations and help from others who had learned of his mission, Hector, now 9, has collected 2,702 smoke detectors.
He has been distributing them in Grand Prairie, Irving, Dallas and elsewhere with the help of local fire departments and community groups.
On Sunday, Hector traveled to Fort Worth — the city whose tragedy inspired him — to help firefighters hand out and install some of the 102 smoke detectors he’d recently donated in north Fort Worth.
Israel and Fidencia Rodriguez, both 71, were among the recipients of Hector’s generosity.
“He is a blessing,” Fidencia Rodriguez said.
While the couple had one smoke detector in a back room, a more central room had only a bracket on the wall — minus the smoke detector.
“We had one there, but I don’t know what happened to it,” Israel Rodriguez said. “We might have took it down when we painted and never did put it back. I don’t know what we did with it.”
‘Think it’s admirable’
This year, Fort Worth has had six residential fires that claimed the lives of nine people — including three children.
In three of those, the homes had no smoke detectors. In one, a detector was present but did not have a working battery. In the two others, the damage was so intense that authorities could not determine whether the home had smoke detectors.
After each fatal fire, the department has targeted the affected neighborhood, going door to door to make sure residents have working smoke detectors. Before Sunday, firefighters had knocked on some 2,500 doors this year, installing 701 smoke detectors and replacing 415 batteries.
On Sunday, with Hector’s help, firefighters and volunteers knocked on 179 doors, installing an additional 71 detectors and 32 batteries.
“I just think it’s admirable for any child that’s saving for a toy to see a story run in the news about a family’s loss and he decides to use that on purchasing smoke detectors to give out to the public,” Fort Worth fire Capt. Ricky Addington said.
Addington said fire codes require multifamily homes and new homes to have smoke detectors.
“But we have homes in the east and south side that have been around since the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s that were built before there was a code requiring it,” Addington said.
Many of the elderly residents without smoke detectors tell firefighters they just couldn’t afford one. Other residents, he said, had one but disconnected it while cooking.
“ ‘It was smoking. It went off and it was annoying me,’ ” Addington said firefighters often hear. “So they’ll take the battery out and never put it back in.”
‘Just a sweet kid’
When word got out in April that Hector had forgone a PlayStation to buy smoke detectors, the boy became an instant celebrity.
His story has been featured on the local and the national news and in Woman’s World and Parents magazines. He was a guest speaker at the International Association of Fire Chiefs Conference in Dallas. He has been presented with awards and gifts by groups and people touched by his generosity.
And he’ll be honored on the field during the coin toss for Saturday’s TCU football game with the Community Trust Bank’s “Hero of the Week” award.
Hector said he’s happy to be a fire safety spokesman. He even wrote a short story that he hopes to have published about a villain who steals the smoke detectors he gives out until a fire ravages his own home.
“I feel really good that everybody noticed that people need smoke detectors,” Hector said.
Hector has since gotten a PlayStation 4 but is saving up his money again, this time in the hope of meeting and presenting a gift to Abigail Segoviano, the 6-year-old girl who lost her twin sister, Gabby, and mother, Elvia Arriola, in the January house fire that inspired his mission.
His mother, Monti Montoya, said her son’s generosity is not surprising. He often wants to give away his own possessions and once insisted that his mother run home to get clothes to share with a child who was walking with his mother in the sleet — without a jacket.
“That’s Hector,” she said. “Hector has a big heart. He’s just a sweet kid.”
Though he didn’t know the child who died with her mother in the Fort Worth fire, Banks said she believes the tragedy will always remain with her grandson.
“As an adult, if it tugs at your heart, just think of a child who is impressionable and what it’s done for them,” Banks said. “It really did affect him and it’s something that’s going to be there forever.”
WHERE TO GET HELP
• The Fire Department provides free smoke detectors to Fort Worth residents. If you need one, call the department’s public education section at 817-392-6862.
• For more information, go to fortworthtexas.gov/fire.