The Fireman's Wife

Nikki Araguz, formerly Justin Purdue, clashes with family over her late husband's legacy.

The gusting winds and raging flames may be his final fate

But with God's help, I can remain my fireman's faithful mate

— The Fireman's Wife's Prayer

Captain Thomas Araguz was about 150 feet into the building when he became separated from the other two men on his team, trapped as the structure burned around him.

The falling, flaming beams of the Maxim Egg Farm processing center drove a wedge between Thomas and the men, a dividing line between who would die and who would make it out with minor burns. The others would be able to claw their way through the wall of smoke, far enough away for rescue teams to drag them to safety, but Thomas was too far in. Either blinded by the smoke or pinned in by blazing debris, he could not find his way out.

The fire, which would later be ruled accidental, caused by resistance heating in a light fixture, had been reported to the Wharton Police Department around 9:40 p.m. When Wharton County firefighters arrived at the site ten minutes later and saw what they were up against, they called for assistance. Multiple structures were ablaze, including a 25,000-square-foot, 250-foot-long building where eggs were put into cartons.

Each time the Rapid Intervention Teams charged the building, the intensifying heat and smoke drove them back. Temperatures inside could have been anywhere from 1,600 to 2,100 degrees. The fire simply would not give. With no hydrants near the sprawling egg farm in rural Boling, tankers had to haul water from as far as 11 miles away.

Outside the inferno, Thomas's uncle, firefighter Arthur Araguz, knew he had to make a phone call he'd give anything not to. It was about 10:30 when he called his brother, Thomas's dad. Big Tom was at home, about 20 miles away from where his only son would lose his life.

When Big Tom answered, all Arthur could say was: We're missing one person.

"Don't tell me who it is," Big Tom said. But of course he knew.

He called his ex-wife Mona, Thomas's mom, and his daughter, Raquel. Big Tom and Mona rushed to his mother's house, where they could follow the fire on a police scanner. They huddled around the black box all night, listening as calls went out for help from other departments. All told, 31 departments — 150 firefighters — had to take down the fire that took down their boy.

At first light, Big Tom and Mona sped to Maxim, where crews were still fighting the flames after nearly nine hours. It would be another hour before searchers would find Thomas. His helmet, adorned with Thomas's customary shamrock stickers, was in one place; his body, another.

When his comrades had lost sight of Thomas, he would have had about 15 minutes of oxygen left. If by some miracle the flames hadn't immediately consumed him, he had a long time to think about what he was leaving behind. Two beautiful boys. A sister who was about to be married.

And a wife, who at that moment was in her car on her way to California. Nikki Araguz wouldn't find out about Thomas until another fireman's wife called her a little after five in the morning, around the time she hit Las Cruces. No one from Thomas's family had called her, and the reasons why would be laid out in a lawsuit filed by Thomas's ex-wife, Heather Delgado, and served to Nikki the day after she buried her husband.

Incredibly, for a man who lived check to check, Thomas's death benefits totaled $600,000, to be split between his wife and a trust for his sons. His ex-wife's lawsuit, which was quickly followed by an identical suit filed by his mom, laid it out for the world to see: Nikki Paige Araguz, wife, stepmother, magazine publisher, former Wharton mayoral candidate, was born a man.

According to the lawsuit, whatever face Nikki presented to the community, whatever a surgeon and scalpel rendered below, Nikki was really Justin Graham Purdue, a two-bit con in disguise. She was a he who lured a God-fearing heterosexual into a marriage that should never have been recognized by the state of Texas. The suits claimed that Thomas didn't find out the truth until April 2010.

Both suits rely on a 1999 case, Littleton v. Prange, in which a state appeals court ruled that Christie Lee Littleton, a transgender woman, was legally a male and therefore her marriage to Jonathan Mark Littleton ten years earlier was invalid under Texas law.

However, Nikki's attorneys argue that a 2009 Texas statute that became law after the couple was married renders Littleton moot. That legislation expanded a marriage license applicant's proof of identity to include "a court order relating to the applicant's name or sex change."

In the days after they filed their suits, Thomas's ex-wife and immediate family would tell the media how the revelation drove Thomas into despair; how the couple separated; how he would have wanted all the money to go to his boys.

As of early August, there is no way to tell how long the litigation will last. Both sides say that, as long as they have to fight in court over what they believe Thomas would have wanted, neither will be able to properly mourn.

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