As smoke saturated the small mobile home and rose into the midnight sky, Michael Hardin crawled on his stomach in search of a woman and little girl inside.
"I couldn't see. I felt around on the floor until I felt a foot," Hardin, 52, said Thursday, hours after the ordeal at Modesto Mobile Home Park on McHenry Avenue.
The foot belonged to 11-year-old Stephanie Smith. Hardin pulled her outside, where other neighbors waited to help. Then he went back inside to find Debbie York.
"I grabbed (Stephanie), then he pulled out Debbie. My son grabbed her," neighbor Trudy Wisdom said.
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Wisdom took Stephanie's body in her arms to drag her to safety. Covered in soot, the child blackened Wisdom's clothes. The girl's blond hair, sodden by ash, fanned out across the ground beneath her as she started gasping for air. The pressure from Wisdom's hold had forced her to breathe again.
Stephanie had been staying with York, 56. They are listed in critical condition at Community Regional Medical Center's burn unit in Fresno, said Michelle Van Valkenburg, spokeswoman for the hospital.
After Hardin and others helped the two to safety, neighbor Ron Diggs, 42, grabbed a garden hose and tried to quell flames that soldered metal crucifixes to walls and devoured furniture, pictures and trinkets that meant something to the two lying on the pavement outside.
"When I started to put water on one (area), the other would start back up," Diggs said.
Neighbors fretted over the little girl who had won their hearts with her sweetness.
"It was Stephanie I was more concerned about. She was completely black, so I couldn't tell how badly she was burned. But Debbie was conscious," said neighbor Tonia Wiseman, 48. "They said if Mike hadn't been there to pull them out, Stephanie wouldn't have been alive. Mike's the real hero. He's a really good guy."
Protector of neighborhood, watch repairman
Neighbors who had watched the commotion pointed to Hardin's house, just behind York's, and echoed the word "hero."
"I just did what anybody would have done," said Hardin, a watch repairman who is on disability.
But no one else did, said Mary Ann Sanchez, 69, who was the first to see the fire and called 911 seconds after midnight.
"It was absolutely horrible. ... I saw flames -- red, red all through there," she said. "I'm on the phone, and here comes (Hardin in) this white car. He saw it immediately."
Hardin was not injured. Stephanie has burns on her neck, face, hands and feet. She also inhaled a lot of smoke, Wiseman said.
York is unable to speak, but she's communicating by writing notes, said her sister, Claire Owens, 55, of Escalon.
"She's homeless now. This was the first time she's owned anything in her life," Owens said of the burned mobile home. "She's devastated she can't talk, but she's so remorseful."
York has been dogged by medical problems her whole life and is unable to work, Owens said. She bought the home with an inheritance a few years ago.
Fire investigators estimate the blaze caused $10,000 damage to the home and $15,000 to $20,000 to the contents, said Stanislaus County Consolidated Fire Department Battalion Chief Richard Boyd.
There were no smoke detectors in the house, officials said. Neighbors saved Stephanie and York's lives, Boyd said.
"Smoke was down to the floor. It was a very valiant effort on (Hardin's) part," he added.
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.