Off-duty firefighter crawls into a blaze to save a frightened boy

April 01, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

Donald Schafer crawled through thick smoke in a burning third-floor apartment in Fullerton, found a screaming 8-year-old boy who'd been left alone by his mother and carried the child to safety yesterday. But he said that doesn't make him a hero.

"It embarrasses you a little to get that much attention over something that you're trained to do," said the 37-year veteran of the city Fire Department, who spotted the blaze just before 6:30 a.m. while returning home after a 14-hour night shift.

"It was the Lord that got him out of there. He just used me. Because if he hadn't put me at this area at that time, I don't know that [the boy] would have got out."

While witnesses and Baltimore County firefighters were praising Mr. Schafer, police and social service agencies were trying to determine why the boy had been left alone and whether any action would be taken against his mother.

Mr. Schafer, 58, said he had been driving toward his Perry Hall home after work when he spotted dense, black smoke pouring from the top floor of the building housing Lorenzo's, a popular nightspot in the 8100 block of Belair Road. He stopped his car, made sure 911 was called, then went around to the back of the building.

There he encountered a woman from a second-floor apartment who told him that there were children in an apartment on the third floor. He climbed the steps, forced open the apartment door and began crawling.

"You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," he said. "I could hear the child crying out, 'Help me!' I kept saying, 'Where are you?' And he kept saying, 'I can't see you! I can't see you!' "

Guided by the child's cries, Mr. Schafer managed to find the boy and carry him to safety. Minutes later, the entire third floor erupted in flames.

"I kept asking if anybody else was in there," said Mr. Schafer. "And he said, no, his sisters went to a girlfriend's house. I asked him where his mother was, and he told me she was at her boyfriend's house."

About 50 Baltimore County firefighters with 12 pieces of equipment arrived just after Mr. Schafer rescued the boy. The two-alarm fire was extinguished within 45 minutes of the first alarm, said Chief Michael Whittaker.

Fire investigators last night still were not sure where and how the fire started, but they said it may have begun in the kitchen area of the third-floor apartment where the boy was found. Chief Whittaker estimated property damage at $120,000.

The boy, who authorities asked not be identified pending the completion of their investigation, was shaken up and had difficulty breathing. He was checked at a local hospital and then released to his mother, who also was not identified.

Police and social services authorities are investigating whether leaving the boy home constituted abuse or neglect, said Camille Wheeler, head of the county's social services department.

Although the boy remains with his mother, should social services investigators find enough evidence of neglect, or feel that the child is in danger, they could have him placed in protective custody, Ms. Wheeler said.

Mr. Schafer was taking no credit for his actions yesterday. In fact, he said he was embarrassed by the blitz of media attention over his exploit. But everyone else agreed that Mr. Schafer's actions averted a tragedy.

"He saved that boy," said Chief Whittaker. "He put himself at risk, and he saved that boy."

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