By BOB BIRGE
Hour Staff Writer
NORWALK — Even though it happened two years ago, Norwalk High School boys’ soocer standout Santiago Muriel still remembers the exact time the fire alarm went off in his house — 12:46 a.m.
He was awakened in the middle of the night to discover that his house was engulfed in flames. The fire started on the front porch and spread.
He called the fire department at 12:51, and they arrived 17 minutes later, 17 long and agonizing minutes.
According to Muriel, firefighters couldn’t put out the fire because one of the hydrants wasn’t working. The house burned down, leaving the family homeless.
“I was just waiting outside because I was freaking out,” said Muriel, who will play his final game for Norwalk on Friday when the Bears take on Fairfield Prep in the Class LL state championship game. “I remember I came down the stairs and I couldn’t see anything.”
As traumatic as the event was, Muriel’s teammates helped him get through it. There are players from 13 different countries on the Norwalk team, yet it is a close-knit squad, which goes a long way toward explaining why the Bears are one win away from the program’s second state championship and first since 1966.
That sense of family never was more evident than in the days after Muriel lost his home.
“I found out about it late at night,” said Norwalk coach Chris Laughton, a social studies teacher at the school. “One of the kids sent me a text message at one in the morning. I came in (to school) that next morning and literally the entire team was in my room, all wondering what they could do to help him out, so we put a plan together of what we can do.”
The players began a fundraising effort, collecting money from fellow students at lunch for a week. The families of the other players also chipped in.
“We really helped out the family with some of the essentials they needed,” Laughton said. “It shows you how much Santi meant to the team. We talk about being a family all the time and that was living up to what we say. I think it sets an example that if anything ever happened in anyone else’s lives, we would be there to support him.”
Muriel’s teammates bought him cleats and a new uniform so he could practice, since he no longer had any equipment.
“It was tragic, but if it wasn’t for them, it would have impacted me more than it did because I was back on feet,” Muriel said. “I was playing soccer the next day. I had practice the next day, and I was like, ‘I’m going, I don’t care.'”
Fellow senior Andrew Melitsanopoulos said the team was devastated when it learned of Muriel’s situation.
“It was very tough for us,” Melitsanopoulos said. “We cried together about it. We just felt awful and we started cherishing the things we had. There were always times when we were bonded together, but I think that was the catalyst moment when we decided we actually are a family.”
Melitsanopoulos remembers the satisfaction he and his teammates felt from their fundraising efforts.
“(Muriel’s) a big component of the team,” he said. “Everybody loves him, so we raised a lot of money. If he ever needed anything, you could never say no.”
Muriel’s situation was not the first time a member of Norwalk’s soccer family has endured a hardship in the last two years. Last year, senior captain Chris Puente underwent open heart surgery after it was discovered that he had two holes in his heart.
“This was after he had played three games,” Laughton said. “He was a four-year starter. Three games into the season we find about that, and same thing — everybody was there to support him. He had a hard time adjusting to life, sitting on the bench and watching, but we all went up to hospital. Everybody went to visit him when he got home, just to make him feel like he was part of the team.”
Laughton reports that Puente has returned to playing recreational soccer while Muriel persevered enough to earn a spot on the University of Connecticut men’s soccer team.
Next fall, he will be re-united with one of hid best friends, Nicholas Zuniga, another former Norwalk star, in Storrs.
Since 2010, Norwalk’s seniors have posted a record of 51-8-3. Still, some wins are bigger than others.
“(The fire) was an experience that happened and I just had to get through it and I did with the team,” Muriel said.
“Emotionally, they were there. I didn’t feel alone because if I was alone, I would have broken down.”
© The Hour Newspaper