Mark Selditch said he didn’t have time to think, only react, when a couple trapped by fire with their infant inside their Ceres apartment yelled for help.
He reached his arms toward their second-story bedroom window and caught their baby girl when her father let her go from 10 feet above.
Not once did Selditch, 59, a worker at Modesto Gospel Mission, think he’d drop the baby. “That didn’t even come into my mind. I knew God was going to protect her,” he said.
Selditch said he and another man helped the baby girl’s parents as they jumped from the window next, escaping the fire with minor injuries.
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Selditch had just left work and come home to the Vineyard Apartments in the 1600 block of Richland Avenue on Monday when he heard someone yelling, “Fire.”
The aftermath was 18 adults and three children displaced, 12 apartments destroyed or damaged, and two dogs dead, according to Ceres Fire Battalion Chief Mike Lillie.
The three-alarm fire was reported about 3:45 p.m., but firefighters are investigating reports that one person smelled smoke for about 20 minutes before flames shot through a storage area built into a breezeway that shared walls with two of the ground-floor apartments, including Selditch’s.
Lillie said the storage space consisted of wood boards that enclosed the breezeway, one under the stairs that led to the second floor and another halfway down the breezeway. Its roof was the landing at the top of the stairs between the two upstairs apartments.
“My best guess is that it had been burning for a while and built up a good amount of heat and fire and then the fire broke through either the upstairs walkway or through one of the walls and got the air that it needed and started progressing really fast,” Lillie said.
Interim Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes said code enforcement will determine if the structure was permitted and constructed in accordance with building code. The area, he said, was used to store equipment for the apartments, including paint, screens, and metal parts for dishwashers and ice makers.
Lillie estimated the fire caused $800,000 in damage. The cause remains under investigation.
Before Selditch heard the cries for help from his upstairs neighbors, he used at least three fire extinguishers to try to knock back the flames.
He wasn’t alone. Lillie said he found about a dozen empty fire extinguishers in the area.
The couple who had to drop their baby, Alicia and Jason Avila, told KOVR 13 news on Tuesday that they are grateful to the men who helped them – Selditch and another man. “I kind of swung her and they caught her perfect,” he said. “It was amazing.”
He told the television station that their daughter, Roxanne, will celebrate her first birthday today.