Turtle survives worst of fire in San Marcos, reunited with owner

Amid the devastation of the tragic July 20 San Marcos apartment fire, resident Elisa Rosen remained optimistic her pet turtle, Holst, somehow survived the blaze.

Call it owner intuition or otherwise, but sure enough, on July 24 Rosen received news that Holst, aquarium and all, managed to escape major injury, much to her surprise and that of first responders.   

Holst, a two-and-a-half-year-old Red-Eared Slider, a species of turtle that is native to the San Marcos River, is the size of a small paper plate, and is named after the English composer Gustav Holst, said Rosen, a self-professed “music nerd.”

Rosen said Holst is a happy turtle. He is enthusiastic about meals and also loves to sunbathe on a log in his tank. His favorite food is shrimp.

“He knows the sound of his food. He’ll start swimming and splashing around when he hears his food. He’ll follow my finger on the glass and swim with me. He gets perked up really easily,” she said.

On July 20, Rosen was staying at her boyfriend’s house in Buda while she let a friend stay in her apartment in order to attend new student orientation at Texas State University. Rosen and a roommate lived at Iconic Village Apartments in San Marcos, located near campus.

It was just after 4:20 a.m. when Rosen got a call from her roommate, who said the building that housed their two-bedroom unit had caught fire. The roommate had been woken up by screams from neighbors, Rosen said. Later, investigators said building 500, which is where they lived, suffered the most damage during the blaze. All five reported victims of the fire were killed in that building.

Rosen’s friend and roommate managed to escape, along with the roommate’s dog. But amidst the chaos, Holst remained in his tank on the windowsill of Rosen’s bedroom.

Rosen immediately drove from Buda to San Marcos after learning of the fire and told first responders her turtle was inside. At that point, it was too dangerous for anyone to go in. In the days following the blaze, she continued to go to the scene and talk to firefighters about her turtle, who admitted things did not look good for Holst.

“They were like, ‘There’s a slim chance he survived. Fire made it to every room (of the building),’” Rosen said. “But I stayed extremely optimistic.”

Nearly five days after the fire, Rosen finally got the phone call she had been hoping for.

The San Marcos Regional Animal Shelter reached out to tell her Holst had been found in the wreckage of the apartment, and seemed to be fine. Holst had been located in the rubble by search crews from Texas Task Force 1.

His tank had been filled with debris from the fire, and the water level was significantly lower than usual. Rosen said she had cleaned his tank the day before, and when Holst was recovered, the tank appeared to only have been filled up about a quarter of how full it had been, she said.

Members of Urban Search and Rescue Texas Task Force 1 carry the aquarium holding Holst the turtle out of debris of the July 20 San Marcos apartment fire.

“I’m really glad to have him back, he’s so special to me. I’m grateful firefighters took time out of their day to make sure he was safe,” Rosen said. “He’s so resilient. I knew he had to be alive. He’s such a fighter, and smart too. I know he probably went underwater and tried to stay there as long as he could.”

It seemed like the fire was hot enough to have evaporated the water, a testament of what Holst went through, Rosen said. Holst had been alone in what remained of the apartment for about four days after the fire.

“The firefighters were pretty surprised he survived,” Rosen said.

Holst is shaken after his experience, but is doing much better, Rosen happily reported. He has been a little more withdrawn than usual, but is coming out from under his log more. He suffered from a film across his eyes, probably due to ash falling in his tank, and was treated for an ulcer at the Kyle Animal Hospital. The shelter in San Marcos covered his medical bills.

For several days after going home, Holst was so nervous he had to be fed by hand, but he has begun to eat on his own over the weekend and seems to be regaining his sight, Rosen said.

She will move into a new apartment this week, and said she is excited to give Holst a stable home after what he went through; since she lost her apartment at Iconic Village, she has been staying with friends and family.

In her new unit, Rosen has a spot in mind for Holst; a windowsill in the living room, perfect for sunbathing on logs.

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