JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Before Jacksonville Fire And Rescue Department Lt. Mike Belcher even made it to the Mayport house fire, he had a knot in his stomach. The fire communications operators had already told him there was a child inside the burning home.
“I don’t know if it was what was on the line with a child being inside, but it was so unnerving going in there,” Belcher said.
Lt. Belcher said he and Engineer Jonathan Woodberry hatched a game plan before they pulled up to the mobile home on Feb. 7. They were going to try to get someone who lived there to show them the baby’s window and go in.
“I was getting in that window one way or the other and I was going to come back with that baby,” Belcher said.
Capt. Jeff Kendall’s engine arrived just before Lt. Belcher’s. Their station was right around the corner from the fire.
“We were reading that the baby was trapped and there is another person that went in for them that is trapped as well,” said Capt. Kendall. “I told my partner kind of the tentative plan, have the stretcher ready, but we are going to go help, get ready and find where the baby is."
When Capt. Kendall and his partner Engineer Steven Park got there, they went around the house where they found the mother of the children.
“I said ‘Ma’am, where is the baby at?’ She pointed to the room. I ran and got a pick head ax and told the first engine crew that got there, I told them where the baby was and I was going to be busting on the window sill so they could use their sense of hearing,” Kendall said. “It was heavy hot, black smoke. You couldn’t see anything. So, when I was busting out the window and banging on the sill, engine 29 came up. Boom.”
It was Lt. Belcher and Woodberry running out of engine 29, towards the fire. They burst into the home and came out with the child.
“I never even saw her. I passed her out the window. When I grabbed all the stuff with the baby I wasn’t even sure I passed her out the window. All I saw was a pillow and I was yelling at my guys ‘Jon, is that her?’ I saw this little peek of her face and I just couldn’t believe it,” said Lt. Belcher. “Somebody was guiding me that night.”
Just as quickly as he caught a glimpse of her face, Capt. Kendall, Engineer Steven Parka and Engineer Sean Seng were on their way to Wolfson’s Children’s Hospital.
Capt. Kendall says it wasn’t until they hit the Matthews Bridge they heard the 2-year-old girl start coughing and moving around.
All five fathers, who happen to be firefighters, say it was almost as if there was someone watching over them, making sure everything happened as it should.
Like, the 17-year-old boy next door going in and getting everyone else out of the house before they arrived.
“If that had not have happened, you know, we could have been dealing with a whole other situation,” said Capt. Kendall.
Or the mother who was able to immediately lead them to the window of her baby girl.
“The key to the whole thing was getting to that window. If we had tried to make entry through the front door, through all the smoke and fire we wouldn’t have been able to get back there in time. Going through the window, that’s what made the difference,” said Lt. Belcher.
There’s probably more than 50 years’ of experience between all five firefighters, but as five fathers, they say there was nothing that could’ve emotionally prepared them to save a little girl that night.
“You know I have a little four-year-old girl who is not much bigger than this little one. I’m still get choked up every time I hug her thinking about that family being able to hug their little baby now. So, it means the world to me,” said Lt. Belcher.
Days after the fire, some of the firefighters met the family and the little girl that had taken up so much room in their hearts. Dressed in their uniforms, the open-hearted dads walked into the Wolfson Children’s Hospital with teddy bears and a pink firefighters hat for 2-year-old Eliana.
Eliana’s mom and Lt. Belcher didn’t manage to hold in their tears as they embraced each other. He reassured her she did the best thing she could do by leading her to where Eliana was and she reassured them of just how thankful their family is for them saving their daughter like they would their own.