Officially, people aren't supposed to run into burning buildings.
The National Fire Protection Association has pushed for years the "Get out, stay out" message to save lives.
And it's here where Merced Fire Division Chief Mike McLaughlin pauses and searches for words.
Just after 1 p.m. Thursday, the fire department got a call of a young child trapped inside a burning apartment. Before firefighters got to the scene, Merced resident David Braga, 32, ran into the blackened, smoke-filled apartment with his T-shirt pressed against his face. Following the sounds of the 2-year-old's cries, he used his cell phone light to locate the girl on a couch in the apartment.
"If Mr. Braga didn't go in," McLaughlin stops and then starts again. "We don't know what the outcome would have been, but that apartment was heavily involved in fire. It's likely that child might not have survived that fire.
"This guy made a tremendous difference by making the decision he made."
Braga said he entered the apartment crawling. The smoke, from an electrical fire in the bedroom, filled the entire living room except maybe 3 inches from the floor.
Braga, a father of three, spoke out Friday, and he had a fairly angry message for people he saw gathering around the apartment building when it was on fire. People who he says didn't go in to save the child.
"When someone's screaming there is a child in their house, at least try to go in there and get the child. Don't just stand around and not do anything. If that was your own child would you want someone to do that to you?" he asked.
McLaughlin points out every fire is different. In general, fire officials tell people to stay out of burning buildings because a rescuer can easily succumb to the smoke and heat. And too often people run into burning buildings to save valuables or pets or are under the mistaken belief that someone is still inside.
Firefighters have special equipment and undergo thousands of hours of training, and it's still extremely dangerous, McLaughlin said.
In 2008, 3,320 people died as the result of fire and 118 firefighters were killed on duty, according to the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association.
"We are always aggressive, but we are more aggressive if there is a life-safety issue," McLaughlin said. "Someone who goes in to rescue someone could now be our victim."
Because the original call Thursday involved a child trapped, the first unit to arrive immediately entered the fire-filled apartment looking for her, not knowing until later that Braga had pulled her out.
Reporter Amy Starnes can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.