Teens, firefighter risked it all to save people from fire
MANCHESTER - Jaqueal Holmes and Raul "Gino" Otero were hot, tired and drenched in sweat after a double session of Central High School football drills at Gill Stadium last Aug. 13.
The combined 6-hour workout, done that sweltering day in full football gear, had left Holmes, 16, and Otero, then 15, both dragging. Gino's sister picked them up after the workout and the teens were heading home. Then, off in the distance, they noticed black smoke.
Off-duty Manchester fire Lt. John Couture also was at Gill Stadium picking up his son and his son's friend after football practice. At the intersection of Lake Avenue and Maple Street he, too, saw dark black smoke in the distance and told his son to call 911 and "tell them it's a big fire." As it turned out, the fire was first reported by a street person who walked into the main downtown station, Couture said.
As Gino's sister turned onto Central Street, the teens could see flames ripping up the rear side of an old Central Street triple decker in the back. The building was attached to another triple decker (333-335 Central St.) that fronted Central Street.
A man in a wheelchair had made it out of the front building and onto the porch but had no way to get down the steps.
"There were people on the sidewalk and more across the street and they weren't doing anything," said Gino, now 16. With no thought for their own safety, and with no firefighters in sight, the two jumped out of the car as it was coasting to a stop and ran to the disabled man. They lifted him, chair and all, and carried him down the stairs and to a safe place. And then they ran into the building, knocking on doors and yelling, "Fire."
They couldn't hear the frantic screams of Gino's sister telling them to come back.
"She was freaking out," laughed Jaqueal.
Jaqueal said as he ran up the stairs, people were coming down carrying their cats and dogs. "I didn't hear any smoke or fire alarms," said Gino.
They didn't see any smoke, but they could smell it, they said, and the flames hadn't reached the front of the building yet.
Couture arrived as the teens were helping the man in the wheelchair. He ran into the burning rear building to alert residents there.
He downplays what he did that day, saying he is a trained firefighter who knows what to expect. But he ran into the burning building without any fire protection gear, alerting residents to the immediate danger.
Couture chooses to focus on the teens' actions that day, which he called remarkable.
"It's fight or flight," he said. "They didn't think about it" And, once everyone was out of the building, the teens didn't stop there. Couture said they helped the short-handed firefighters run out hose lines.
"You boys feel strong?" Jaqueal recalls one firefighter asking them.
Couture said there was a delay in firefighters getting to the scene because they were at another fire on the West Side. Had the teens not done what they did, he said, someone could have died.
He said there were dozens of spectators watching the afternoon blaze from the safety of the sidewalk, but the two high school sophomores were the ones to run into the building.
"It's either in you or not," Couture said. "Instead of running away, they ran into it. It says something about their character."
Both Jaqueal and Gino also downplay what they did, saying they only did what they believe anyone would do.
"I just think that it's not really like a big deal because I think anyone should have done that," said Raul. "In our community, we all have to stick together, especially in Manchester if there is a fire."
Both said it never occurred to them that they were putting themselves in danger.
"Everything was happening so fast," said Jaqueal. "I was still in football mode."