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Dramatic fire rescue at Loma Portal Apartments

Between Walgreens and Days Inn

— Each day, Jim Grant drives from Shelter Island to his job at Hammond and Masing General Contractors in Mira Mesa.

On Tuesday morning, December 11, as he approached Midway Drive on Rosecrans Street, he saw smoke to his left. "I'm not ordinarily a gawker, not in a hurry to run to badness," says Grant. "But I didn't hear any sirens, and that plume of smoke was big and black. So I called 911 on my cell phone and pulled a U-turn at Rosecrans and drove back a block."

Grant turned right on Cauby Street, which runs west between Walgreens and the Days Inn motel. He could then see that the smoke came from the back of a large apartment complex, the Loma Portal Apartments, on the south side of the street. Not wanting to get in the way of fire trucks, Grant drove 50 feet past the rising smoke and turned in to the parking lot of the next apartment building. "I drove in a ways," he says, "because I wanted to get a good angle to see where the smoke was coming from. I grabbed my camera and stepped over this wall right here."

Grant and I are now standing in the Loma Portal's lot. He points to his left, then to his right, indicating where at the time of the fire, three days earlier, several groups of onlookers stood around watching the smoking building. "I asked them, 'Has anybody gone in there to make sure all those units are empty?' " When the onlookers said no and none showed a sign of going in, Grant started moving toward the apartments. He wondered, "Where is everybody?" He kept expecting to see firefighters.

Grant, who is 52 years old, five feet ten inches tall, and 180 pounds, is leading me down a palm-lined sidewalk between two wings of the building. "I was looking up to my left in the direction of the smoke," he says, "and all of a sudden, around the corner, there were flames shooting out of those upstairs windows." Shattered glass lay on the concrete below. Before proceeding farther, Grant says he put his camera on the ground next to one of the palm trees. Later he took pictures.

Following Grant's route on the day of the fire, we now enter a back entrance to the Loma Portal's north wing. Immediately inside, a staircase rises to the right. Grant takes me to the second-floor landing, which doubles back toward another door. "This hallway door was closed," he tells me. "When I opened it, there was a big rush of hot air coming through. And I started down the hall yelling and banging hard on every door I saw. You're going to want to know what time this was, right? Well, here's my broken watch. It says 7:37."

Grant says he wasn't sure where any of the doors went. But plenty of smoke was rising from underneath the first door on the hallway's left. And it was very hot there. A little farther, the small square window that had covered an emergency fire hose was open. Grant and I speculate that someone may have tried to use the hose before escaping the building.

By now, Grant tells me, the whole hall was filling with smoke. I ask, "How was your visibility?"

"On the first two passes down that hallway, I could see," says Grant.

Grant kept pounding on the doors to his left and right. "I got all the way down here [the second-to-last door on the right], and when I banged on it, the door opened. And a woman is sitting there in a wheelchair holding a baby. Next to her is a boy about nine years old. I started yelling at her. 'You've got to get out of here right now,' I said. 'You can't stay here. The building's on fire. You've got to go.' She said something in broken English about putting on her undergarments. She mentioned that twice. The second time I was done having conversation. I reached down and grabbed the baby like this," says Grant, as he shows how he pulled the child, dressed in a one-piece jumper, into the crook of his arm. "And I pulled the baby to my chest. Then I grabbed the kid by the back of his neck, and we ran out, the boy at my side."

"Did the lady say anything further?"

"I don't think so," says Grant, "but she may have. Several fire alarms were going off, and you couldn't hear anything else.

"So I took the baby down, retracing my steps through the hall, down the stairwell, back to the sidewalk, and when I got out there, one of the guys who had been standing in the parking lot was coming my way. So I said, 'Here, take the baby.' And I told the kid, 'Stay with [this man].' Then I went back, up the stairs again, down the hall through a big cloud of smoke. It smelled like electrical wire and plastic burning, a very acidic effect in my nose and throat, pretty bad. And the same thing all over. I was banging on doors and yelling. When I got to the woman's door, I cracked it open, and I thought, 'Where is she?' Turns out she was in the bathroom, half dressed. It looked like she was putting on her leg braces, and maybe some undergarments. I yelled at her again, 'You've got to go. The building's on fire. Your kids are downstairs.' By then, I couldn't breathe. I thought, 'I better get out of here or they'll be dragging me out by my ankles.' "

"How was she doing?"

"She had been in the bathroom with the door shut. Whether there was an exhaust fan going in there, I don't know. But it was like she had this modesty thing that had kicked in, and she wanted to make sure she was properly dressed.

"Since I couldn't breathe, I knew I had to get a firefighter to help me carry her out. So I went back out of the building. But there weren't any firemen there yet."

Fortunately, however, a San Diego police officer came running up and asked about the situation. The officer then instructed Grant to lead him to the woman upstairs. The two of them ran up the stairs to the hallway entrance. "The officer tugged on the back of my shirt and yelled, 'Go,' " says Grant.

The two men pushed into the hall as far as they could, but by now, according to Grant, the visibility was eight or ten feet at the most. "Worse than that was the heat and the fumes," he says. "I felt like my chest was about as big as a walnut. You couldn't get air, absolutely couldn't get air. But suddenly, there was the woman, in her motorized wheelchair, coming at us out of the smoke. I guess she finally realized she was going to die if she didn't get out of there."

Grant and the officer guided the wheelchair out to the landing, where they carried the woman down the stairs. Then, while she held on to the stair railing, they went up and retrieved her chair. The woman was quickly reunited with her children, a four-week-old daughter and ten-year-old son.

By this time, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department personnel were shooting water into the burning apartment and blowing smoke out of the building with a fan. Television cameras appeared shortly afterward. And lo, a KNSD reporter was seen speaking with young Huberto. Later, on the evening news, the reporter stated the facts. "Maria Caltette, a disabled woman, was still on the second floor with her ten-year-old son Huberto and her one-month-old daughter." "I thought about things they tell me in school -- not to panic when there's a fire -- so I didn't panic," Huberto said. "I grabbed the baby and I ran out."

Later, by phone, I speak with Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the fire department who was one of the first responders on the scene. Luque tells me he does not know which version of events is correct. I ask Jim Grant if the boy's version bothers him. "No," he says, "it's okay for him to take some credit."

"You know," he continues, "when my sister heard about what happened, she said I must have been crazy to run into that building. When it all comes back to me, I think I might very well have been crazy, because I almost didn't make it. But my company recently paid for me to take a very thorough first-aid class. I don't think that during the fire I was thinking consciously of the things I learned. Maybe subconsciously, though."

The day after the fire Grant returned to the Loma Portal. He tells me that seeing the wheelchair's tracks in the hallway gave him "an eerie feeling." He looked into Caltette's apartment again too. "It had a thick layer of black soot all over the place," Grant tells me. "The acoustical ceiling, the carpets, the couch, everything had been inundated by smoke. You could see the wheelchair tracks crisscrossing on the linoleum of her kitchen floor."

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