Parents sue Canadian billionaire after a Benton City house fire killed 2 children

A former Benton City couple is suing the vineyard they say gave them an unsafe home without smoke alarms.

Sergio and Erika Hernandez’s two children were severely burned and later died after the house caught fire two years ago.

The couple had left the children sleeping inside when they went out to work in a nearby vineyard. They were about a half mile away when they saw the smoke.

Their 7-year-old daughter died within a few days. Their 10-year-old son died six months later.

Both went through horrific suffering, said the suit filed this week in King County Superior Court.

The lawsuit names Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards and other companies associated with the vineyard, as well as Luigi Aquilini, the Canadian businessman who heads the renowned wine-making firm based in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Aquilini family is considered one of the wealthiest in Canada.

The Hernandez family had lived in the company’s Appaloosa Lane manufactured home with their children — Benito “Alex” Alejandro Hernandez Carrillo, 10, and Erika “Patty” Patricia Hernandez Carrillo, 7 — for three years.

The lawsuit claims the Aquilini business did “extensive work” on the home without getting any permits or inspections, and didn’t provide functioning smoke detectors.

Aquilini House
The fire in this Benton City manufacture home claimed the life of two children who were inside. Now the parents are suing their former employer. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

While the business didn’t specifically comment on that work at the home, Jim Chu, the Aquilini Group’s senior vice president, told the Herald the fire started after Sergio Hernandez hit an electrical junction box in a truck he was test driving.

At the time, Benton County Sheriff’s investigators connected the fire to an electrical surge that started when a trailer accidentally hit an electrical junction box.

July 2017 fire

Sergio and Erika Hernandez left the house on July 31, 2017, to work in the nearby vineyard, with plans to come back and take their children to an appointment.

As they were working, the couple and their co-workers spotted smoke about 7 a.m.

They raced to the house and found it engulfed in flames.

Sergio Hernandez tried the front door but smoke and fire forced him back. He broke a bedroom window and climbed inside the burning room.

He found his unconscious children and managed to hand them out the window before he passed out, the lawsuit said.

Hernandez Family.jpg
Sergio Hernandez, his wife and two of their kids, Alex, 10, and Erika, 7, suffered serious burns in July 2017. Both children later died. Courtesy the Hernandez family

“It was only the screaming of his wife that woke him to stand up before he toppled out of the window,” said the lawsuit.

Benton County Fire District 4 crews found everyone outside when they arrived. The family was first taken to Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland and then flown to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.

Patty had burns on 72 percent of her body and damage to her lungs. She died Aug. 18.

Her brother suffered burns to 66 percent of his body, and was moved from Harborview Medical Center to Seattle Children’s Hospital. He died on Jan. 29, 2018.

Their father also suffered serious injuries. Sergio Hernandez had burns across about a third of his body, along with damage to his lungs and his hearing, and hasn’t been able to work since the fire, according to the lawsuit.

Aquilini vineyards

Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards bought 670 acres in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area from the Kennewick Irrigation District in 2013.

Aquilini begins drone
Aquilini Red Mountain Vineyards is building a 170,000-square-foot wine-processing building and tasting rooms off Highway 224 across from Antinori Road near Benton City. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

The company planted grapes and recently began producing several wines.

Last November, the prominent Vancouver, B.C., family that owns the Canucks hockey franchise was starting to build a major wine production facility and tasting room near Benton City.

“This was a tragic event in 2017 that saddened everyone involved,” Chu said. “We deeply mourn the loss of these two young lives and the resultant burn injuries to Sergio, their father and one of our valued workers, when he and other employees tried to rescue the children.”

He said the company provided the Hernandez family with moral and financial support for eight months following the fire.

This included providing regular pay and expenses for both Sergio and Erika Hernandez, he said. At that point, they were able to file for state benefits.

The company has yet to file a formal response to the lawsuit filed by Seattle attorneys, Crystal Grace Rutherford and Matthew Hale, and California attorney, John Kawai.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.