When Stephanie Muñoz startled awake just before 2 a.m. on Tuesday, before her brain could even process the plasticky stench permeating her bedroom, she remembered in horror that she’d forgotten to turn off the burner.
Then came that dreadful smell of smoke and, she says, she just knew: “The house is on fire.”
A few hours earlier, the 23-year-old Monroe resident, a new mom, had put on one more pot, dropped in the last of her son’s bottles, caps and utensils that needed sterilizing, and started boiling the water. On her way upstairs to check in on baby Albert, she set an alarm on her iPhone to remind her when to come back down.
But – exhausted from a busy Christmas Day at her boyfriend’s aunt’s house – Muñoz couldn’t resist closing her eyes for a second as she listened to Albert’s breathing in the crib next to her bed.
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When her cellphone’s alarm chirped a few minutes later, she must have hit stop instead of snooze. Because she didn’t wake up until plumes of thick black smoke had snaked their way through the vents from the first floor of her parents’ house to the second. And upon realizing her error, upon feeling her stomach sink at the thought of the house ablaze, she immediately wondered:
Would she, her son, her older sister Michelle, and Michelle’s young daughters be able to get through the smoke and down the stairs in time? And if so, how?
First on the scene
Officer Corey Helms, driving along MLK Jr. Boulevard, had just passed the Muñozes’ street when the 911 call was dispatched. So, though another officer was en route, Helms got to the house within about a minute.
If an extra drop or two of adrenaline was coursing through his veins at that point, it’d be hard to blame him: This wasn’t just his first time being the first to the scene of a house fire; it was his first time responding to a fire call, period.
Helms was hired by the Monroe Police Department almost exactly one year ago, and was sworn in last January, a few months after his 21st birthday. Prior to entering the academy, he’d been wearing a different kind of uniform, as a shift leader at the Chick-fil-A at Monroe Crossing mall. He’d spent five years working at the restaurant while attending Union County Early College, then Wingate University, where he earned his bachelor’s in criminal justice.
When he arrived at the house, he heard smoke detectors whining, but saw no flames. So he took what he thought was the best first course of action: “I rang the doorbell.”
‘Smoke just started pouring out’
Stephanie Muñoz never heard the chime.
By this time, she and her sister Michelle had gathered the kids – 5-month-old Albert, 10-month-old Maia and 3-year-old Melanie – in Michelle’s bedroom at the front of the house. The upstairs hallway was now so clouded that they were afraid to open the door again, because it was burning their lungs and stinging their eyes. And with their little ones’ lives potentially at stake, the two moms had ruled out braving the staircase, since they had no idea what dangers might be waiting at the bottom of it.
Though the doorbell didn’t get their attention, the beam from Officer Helms’s flashlight did, and Stephanie responded by pushing up the window and knocking out the screen.
“Is everyone OK?” Helms shouted at them, though he was barely halfway through the word “everyone” when he realized everyone was not.
Almost immediately, Stephanie tossed him a set of keys and explained that the front door was locked from the inside. After quickly finding the right matches, Helms was able to open both the knob and the deadbolt.
When he pulled the door open, he says, “smoke just started pouring out.” He ducked in to try to get a better sense of the situation, but couldn’t see through the plumes and found it impossible to catch a breath of clean air.
So he came back outside and shouted up to ask if they had a ladder. Stephanie said yes, but that it was in a shed behind the house and that her parents – who were out of the country for the holidays – kept the tall gate protecting the backyard locked.
The options were dwindling. Firefighters were on the way, but there was no telling if, when, or how quickly things could spiral out of control. Both Helms and the Muñoz sisters had begun considering whether the best option might be to have the women drop the children into his arms, then jump.
‘Now’s the time’
Right then, a second Monroe police officer arrived on the scene: Dylan Cole, 25, also a first-year officer, who earned a master’s degree in forensic and legal psychology at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., before going through the academy – with Helms. The two started working for the department the same month.
When Cole talks about why he wanted to join the force, he says, “I felt like that’d be the best way to help people right now in the world. I wanted to help fix things. I wanted to help figure stuff out. I wanted to help people solve issues.”
So after getting brought up to speed by Helms, and being told about how thick the smoke was inside, Cole had his solution for this particular situation:
“I was like, ‘Alright, well, we gotta go in there and see if we can get ’em. Let’s go.’ ”
Without any of the gear available to firefighters save a couple of flashlights that did them virtually no good (“You couldn’t really see the stairs just because of how thick the smoke was,” Helms says), the officers worked their way up the steps, calling out to the women and following the sounds of their voices.
I didn’t know how severe the fire was. All I knew was there were three small children upstairs and that the two women upstairs were telling us that the smoke was pouring into their room, and they needed help.
Officer Dylan Cole
Once they got into Michelle’s bedroom, visibility was better, since the door had been closed and smoke hadn’t yet filled the room. But they still didn’t have any sense of how bad it was at the source of the smoke. All they knew is that where there was smoke, there was almost certainly fire, and that if the fire somehow found its way to gas ...
“Now’s the time to go,” Cole told them.
Melanie, the 3-year-old, reached her arms out and Cole scooped her up. Helms took Albert, the baby, into his arms.
“Follow us,” the officers told the sisters, “and stay low.”
‘This is the job’
When they reached the bottom of the staircase, a firefighter appeared. It was over. Everyone was safe.
Once daylight came and Stephanie Muñoz could return to the house, she found that the damage wasn’t nearly as bad as she had feared. Basically, after the water in the pot had boiled off, the bottles and caps and utensils had started melting. The smoldering heat eventually got to the over-the-range microwave, which was smoking when firefighters tore it out of the wall.
The whole house would need a cleaning, sure – 36 hours later, if you ran a finger across the arms of the leather sofa in the front room, that finger would come up with a bit of black on it – but it was hardly a disaster area. A casual visitor, in fact, might not be able to tell that anything bad had happened at the Muñoz residence unless they went into the kitchen, or had an eye keen enough to notice the soot ringing some of the ceilings.
So Muñoz knows it’d be easy for someone who wasn’t there to say, What gives? What was all the fuss about?
“(People told me) ‘If it was me, I would have grabbed my son and ran out the door,’ ” she says. But “when you see a little smoke coming up, you’re thinking the house is on fire. Downstairs, in my head, I (thought), ‘It’s probably on fire.’ ”
That’s why Helms and Cole went in. They could hear in the women’s voices that they felt as if they were running out of time. So even though they knew fire trucks could arrive at any minute, they did something they’ve never done before in their lives: They ran into a building they thought was burning down.
“It was definitely a big sense of urgency,” Officer Helms says. “I really didn’t even have time to even think about it.”
Adds Officer Cole: “I didn’t know how severe the fire was. All I knew was there were three small children upstairs and that the two women upstairs were telling us that the smoke was pouring into their room, and they needed help.”
When Helms finished his overnight shift and spoke with his girlfriend – or, rather, fiancée (the couple got engaged on Christmas Eve) – he says she told him she was glad the story had a happy ending, but worried about him taking such a big risk by going into the house.
“This is the job, though,” Helms says. “This is what I signed up for.”