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Fresno teenager burned in home fire ready for high school graduation

Israel Gonzalez, 18, center, of Fresno, stands with his older brother Jose Gonzalez, 20, left, and his home hospital instructor Donald Rotella in Fresno, California on June 9, 2015. Gonzalez suffered burns over 65% of his body five months ago after a gas-leak explosion at his home, but has recovered enough to pass his GED exam and plans to walk at his high school graduation ceremony on Wednesday.
Israel Gonzalez, 18, center, of Fresno, stands with his older brother Jose Gonzalez, 20, left, and his home hospital instructor Donald Rotella in Fresno, California on June 9, 2015. Gonzalez suffered burns over 65% of his body five months ago after a gas-leak explosion at his home, but has recovered enough to pass his GED exam and plans to walk at his high school graduation ceremony on Wednesday. sflores@fresnobee.com

On the night of Jan. 10, 17-year-old Israel Gonzalez was about to go to asleep when his room was engulfed in flames.

“I take off my shirt, and that’s when the wall just falls down,” said Gonzalez. “The whole house just exploded. They said it was a gas leak from the stove.”

According to a Fresno Fire Department spokesman, one of Gonzalez’s relatives was in the process of making “honey oil,” a resin form of marijuana, when the explosion occurred.

After scrambling out of the inferno at his home and asking neighbors to douse him with water, Gonzalez was hospitalized with burns on 65% of his body. Gonzalez was taken to Community Regional Medical Center for treatment. A few weeks later, he was back to his studies. On Wednesday, Gonzalez, now 18, graduates with a general equivalency degree.

Donald Rotella has been a teacher in the Fresno area for 37 years. In addition to working with the deaf and hard of hearing, Rotella does home/hospital instruction. In late January, Gonzalez became one of Rotella’s students. He began working with Gonzalez while he was still in the hospital.

“He couldn’t turn pages. There was blood on his fingers. He was wrapped up in gauze. He wasn’t able to actually write because of his bandages,” Rotella said.

But the teen was determined. “Israel was very patient, very focused,” Rotella said.

GED exams have five sections — math, science, social studies, reading and writing. Over the course of the next few months, Rotella would teach Gonzalez to master them all. There were times when Gonzalez felt like giving up, but support from friends, family, hospital staff and fellow burn victims kept him on track.

“The only thing that made me kind of want to stop was the pain, but I just kept thinking of what they would tell me in the hospital — to not let it bring me down,” Gonzalez said. “People would tell me stories about how they got burned and how they recovered and those got in my mind.”

During Gonzalez’s time at the hospital, his brother, Jose, was always at his side.

“I gave him advice about finishing school. When he was in the hospital, I told him to be strong and try to get his education,” said Jose, who also will graduate Wednesday. He plans to attend Fresno City College and study engineering.

“I was always right there. If he needed anything, instead of calling the nurses, I would be right there to help him.”

Gonzalez will study nursing at Fresno City College after graduation, but he didn’t always have a passion for higher education.

“Before the fire, I would just be on the street, hanging out with my firends, not even really wanting to go to school. After it happened, it just opened my eyes to go to school and finish college and make something of my life,” Gonzalez said. “Because I saw how close I was to losing my life.”

With a newfound sense of direction, Gonzalez will graduate from Cambridge Continuation High School in a ceremony held at the Roosevelt High School auditorium on Wednesday. He expressed gratitude to the man who helped get him there.

“Thanks a lot, you really helped me,” Gonzalez said to Rotella. “I wouldn’t be here without you.”

Michael Olinger: (559) 441-6141

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