Without pausing to think, he ran into the smoke-filled apartment building and helped save two women, six children, five dogs (including two puppies) and a cat, officials said at a news conference.
Zabrina Washington, who lives on the second floor of the red brick three-flat, said Leighton kicked in her front door, alerting her family to the fire.
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- 1900 South Drake Avenue, Chicago, IL 60623, USA
She had noticed the thick smoke, she said, and called 911 but still wasn't sure what was going on.
Leighton's shouts and sudden presence brought everything into focus.
"I'm grateful that he came in," Washington said. "And I mean, he came in like, 'Get out of the house!' "
She ran to wake her sleeping children and remove their pets.
Leighton went up to the third floor after learning from Washington that her neighbors might be trapped.
A wall of smoke hit him as soon as he kicked open the apartment door.
"I couldn't see anything," Leighton said. "I couldn't see a foot in front of me."
A 54-year-old woman was hanging out of a rear window to avoid the smoke.
Leighton said he ran to the top deck of the building next door and talked with her to keep her alert until firefighters arrived. The woman's 21-year-old son had jumped from a third-floor window to the roof of the building next door but was also trapped.
When Chicago firefighters arrived, flames were coming out the side of the building and smoke was pouring out of windows, Chicago Fire Department Battalion Chief Tom Sweeney said. Leighton told firefighters of the two trapped people.
Sweeney said Leighton's quick work at the scene helped lead to a swift rescue.
"The hairs on the back of your neck kind of stand up," Sweeney said. "You've got people trapped, (and) these guys hear it. The information was vital for us in making these rescues."
The woman and her son were taken to local hospitals. They suffered smoke inhalation but were in good condition, fire department officials said.
Washington said her home was badly damaged but she was glad her family and their pets got out in time.
"We are blessed," Washington said. "Any of us could have been dead or in the hospital with serious injuries."
Leighton credited police training for his actions. But he said he agreed with the children across the street who saw him run into the building without a mask and told him he was crazy.
"I got caught up in the moment and didn't really think," Leighton said. Thinking of Mother's Day, he added: "I think my mom's going to kill me for that."
Tribune reporter Liam Ford contributed.