The smoke was too strong for them to get inside the house, but the two Chicago police officers heard children screaming for help from the top floor.
“At that time, it was just, ‘We've got to figure out something to do to get the kids,'” said Officer Kevin Tate, who spotted the fire while on patrol Tuesday evening on the Far South Side and sped to the scene with his partner, Officer Samanthia Smith.
With the help of a couple of neighbors, Smith and Tate coaxed the 8- and 15-year-old boys to jump from a second-story window and into their arms.
“I think the first one was the hardest,” Smith said. “I kind of like begged him — like, ‘C'mon, we're going to catch you, just come on. Come on and get out.'”
After they caught the 8-year-old, the teen also leaped to safety. Neither boy was seriously injured.
Firefighters who arrived on the scene moments later rushed inside to save a man trapped on the top floor. He was alert while walking to an ambulance, but he was taken to a hospital in serious-to-critical condition.
“He was up there at least 10 minutes in all that heavy smoke,” said Bernard Jones, who lives nearby and said he was one of the neighbors who helped catch the kids.
Two firefighters were hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, officials said, including one who fell down the stairs after the heat pushed him back.
The rescue began after Smith and Tate, both Calumet District officers, saw smoke rising from a house in the 11600 block of South Michigan Avenue while driving back to their station at about 6 p.m.
“He hit the gas, and we were there within 15 seconds,” said Smith, an officer for more than 10 years.
“We pulled up on the scene and saw that the fire was going pretty bad. We jumped out of the car, and we both, not thinking, ran toward it and ran in and discovered that the smoke was too strong. We came out and heard kids yelling and people yelling saying that people were inside of the house.”
Outside, other residents of the West Pullman neighborhood were gathering and trying to help. One man on the house's porch initially didn't realize there was a blaze inside, Jones said.
“I'm telling him, ‘Man, your house is on fire,'” he said.
Jones said he was glad to help because of a fire at his home about 20 years ago that burned his niece.
“To this day, she's got a lot of things wrong with her 'cause of that smoke,” Jones said. “I was not gonna let that happen to them. I'm just glad the kids are all right.”
The fire was declared under control at about 7 p.m., an hour after Smith and Tate spotted the smoke. The blaze remained under investigation Wednesday, but a police report cited smoking materials as a possible cause.
Smith's arm was in a sling when she spoke about the rescue at police headquarters Wednesday. She didn't yet know details of her condition but suspected it was injured when she helped catch the older boy.
Smith said it was a “blessing” that everyone made it out of the house alive.
“You can't train for that,” she said. “You hear voices and you hear people that need help, and you just have to do what you need to do.”