It’s unclear what exactly awoke 11-year-old Jema Hernandez at 3 a.m. Dec. 18.
She smelled something unpleasant, and put a pillow over her head to get back to sleep.
But realizing what she smelled was smoke, Jema took action that saved her family’s home, and quite possibly the lives of her parents, older brother, sister and 4-year-old nephew, Hall County fire officials said.
Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell explained on Friday, during a presentation for Jema at Lyman Hall Elementary School, that ears stay awake during sleep, but the nose does not.
“There were no working smoke alarms in the house,” Kimbrell said. “Fortunately, she woke up. And you never know what might have aroused her. Just the grace of God, I guess.”
Once awake, the family quickly realized that a space heater in the living room was the culprit of smoke engulfing the living room and spreading into Jema’s room.
“My husband came out to see what was going on, because he saw Jema going back and forth to her room and our room and her siblings’ rooms,” Jema’s mother, Hortencia Hernandez, said. “When he realized what was going on, he just started shouting, ‘Everyone get out! Everyone get out!’”
The fire was under control within minutes of her husband calling the fire department. He began extinguishing the flames with water, as did their 18-year-old son, Angel.
“I want to thank the firefighters. They did such a good job,” Hortencia said. “And I also want to thank them for recognizing Jema in person.”
Jema’s teacher, classmates and mother watched as Kimbrell presented Jema the “Hero Award.” Also present were Hall County Fire Marshal Capt. Scott Cagle and Lt. Beverley Walker.
Walker hugged Jema, who was a little overwhelmed by the attention at first, as she stood in front of her classmates.
Jema’s mother repeated, tears in her eyes, what she told her daughter early that Tuesday morning once the family was outside and safe.
“Oh, God, thank you, Jema. You saved all of us,” she said, adding that Jema’s older siblings, Deici, 25, and Angel thanked her as well.
The fire damaged everything in the living room, including the TV, and kitchen, Hortencia said. The house will require extensive cleaning to be free of smoke damage.
And Jema, by opening the door to her room as she alerted everyone, lost many of her clothes to smoke damage.
But the Hernandez family still has their house and each other.
“God gave us another opportunity,” Hortencia said. “She’s our hero.”