It was a typical Ohio winter night, cold enough to be snowing yet warm enough to be raining. I was making an almost futile attempt at driving and checking street signs at the same time. Jim Bowen and Mark Auckerman, 18-year-old non-LDS friends, were reading off the street signs as we slowly drove down the ice-covered street.
“All I know,” explained Jim, “is that Chris lives on Dibert Avenue, and it’s somewhere off this street.”
“But are you sure it’s down this far?” asked Mark.
We were in the south end of Springfield, a district that none of us was very familiar with. I was stuck with the treacherous chore of driving and decided we should just keep going until we found Dibert or came to the end of the street.
Slowly we drove on, block by block, attempting to read each sign as we passed it. Just as we were about to give up hope and turn around, we saw it. “Dibert,” we chorused happily.
Because of the ice and the poor condition of my tires, I turned the car into a parking lot about 20 yards past Dibert. By making a U-turn in the lot, I stopped the car perpendicular with the street we had been searching for. Now the problem was which way to turn on Dibert. As Mark and I argued about whether to turn right or left, Jim drew our attention to the house directly in front of us.
It was a two-story frame house, like most of the dwellings in this part of the city. The front of this house was a dry cleaning store; the back appeared to be a couple of apartments. The dry cleaners faced the street we had just turned off, and we faced the side of the house.
Through a side window we could see some kind of flame throwing shadows off the walls inside. The shades were drawn, and we couldn’t see if the flames were in a fireplace or a stove. But soon we realized that the flames looked too big for a stove and too high off the ground for a fireplace.
Leaving the engine running, I put the car into park and jumped out, followed closely by Mark. As we reached the window, we could see the flames were much taller than we’d realized. We hopped the fence and ran to the back door. We pounded as hard as we could, but no one answered. The door was locked. I ran around to the front of the building while yelling to Jim to “go call somebody.”
I kicked open the front door and hurdled the counter just inside. There was a small room between the front of the dry cleaners and the apartment in back.
In the living room of the attached apartment was a young woman who was screaming hysterically and trying to beat out the fire with a small rug. What appeared to be a large overstuffed sofa was completely engulfed in flames. The paper on the wall had caught fire, and the flames were shooting up the wall and across the ceiling directly above her.
My first reaction was to bend down low, turn, and leave the room. The heat was intense, and the smoke was quickly filling the room.
I screamed at the woman to leave but finally had to grab her by the arm and drag her out of the room. I asked her if there was anybody else in the house. Before she could answer, there came cries from upstairs.
“My children,” she sobbed.
“How many?” I asked.
She said there were two children upstairs. She pointed to a doorway right next to the flaming couch. Though only a few seconds had elapsed, the flames had now engulfed the entire wall and were shooting across the entire ceiling.
Glancing at the doorway, I realized that even if I could make it through, there would be little chance of returning the same way.
My thoughts turned to Heavenly Father. It seemed there was only one thing to do. Putting my complete trust in God, I darted for the flame-engulfed doorway, my face burning as I ran up the narrow stairway as fast as I could.
Standing at the top were the two children, a five-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. They were crying for their mother. I tucked a child under each arm and turned to run back down the stairs. Their mother had broken away from Mark and was about three-quarters of the way up the stairs when I turned around.
I heard a loud boom. The flames were now coming about halfway up the inside of the stairwell.
In that split second on those stairs I prayed harder and with more intensity than I had prayed in my entire life. I now realized that not only my life but the lives of a woman and two children depended on my actions. I remember praying, if not saying aloud, the words, “Not my will but thine.”
I suddenly remembered Mark was still downstairs and started yelling at the top of my lungs for him. Mark later told me the loud boom I heard was the living room ceiling collapsing and that a huge piece of blazing plywood had fallen to the floor just as the woman disappeared into the doorway. He had stayed downstairs and tried to confine the fire by shutting doors throughout the house. He never heard me yell that we were going out a window.
Knowing that the smoke wasn’t going to leave us much time, I ran up the stairs to look for a window.
When I reached the second floor, I ran straight into a totally dark room that apparently had no windows. I could feel the soles of my feet getting warm and realized the smoke was getting more unbearable by the second. The woman led me down the hall to a small window that led out onto the roof.
She climbed out first and I followed, still squeezing a child under each arm. When we reached the edge of the roof I could see smoke was pouring out of every window in the house. I saw Mark on the ground right below us and yelled that I was going to drop the kids down to him.
Pivoting, I tossed the little boy about three feet away from the house to Mark, who made a perfect basket catch.
The smoke was so thick now I couldn’t see the ground, but I heard a voice I didn’t recognize and dropped the little girl off the roof. I was told later that a man had seen the blaze, stopped his car, and run over to Mark in time to help catch the little girl.
The woman was still sobbing and crying hysterically. Mark had put down the little boy and broke the fall of the woman as she fell from the roof. I jumped feet first and landed unhurt.
Safely on the ground, I ran to the apartment on the other side of the house. There, Jim and I pounded on the door, but no answer came. After a few seconds we broke the glass and unlocked the door. We checked the entire house and found that no one was living on that side.
My thoughts, as we ran back around the building, were the products of years of Boy Scout training—treatment of smoke inhalation, shock, and exposure. The woman and the children were brought to my car, which was warm and still running. The little boy asked where his puppy was, and even though I had seen no dog, I tried to assure him his puppy was all right. By now the fire trucks and ambulance were parked at the front of the house, so I told Mark and Jim to meet me at the hospital.
Everyone was treated and released.
When we returned to the scene, we counted nine fire engines. The blaze had been doused, and all that remained of the building was the charred frame. It sent chills up my spine to look at the house, smoke still billowing from the windows. As we stood there solemnly looking at the destruction that had taken place, a fireman emerged with what looked like a small stuffed animal. It was the little boy’s puppy. It had hidden in a downstairs closet in some kind of air pocket and had survived the two-hour blaze without so much as a scratch.
A feeling of relief and thankfulness swept over me. I realized that chance had not led us to this house but that a heavenly force had inspired us to make that wrong turn. I knew that without the Lord’s help several people would likely have lost their lives. Before this experience I had thought my faith was weak, but I knew then that if it had not been for faith, I would have panicked at the thought of death. Because of the teachings of the gospel and the understanding it gives us of death, I was able to keep my head and do what had to be done. I realized that my life was in Heavenly Father’s hands. I’m thankful now that we were spared and that my faith was strengthened immensely by an inspired wrong turn.