Stunning video captures dramatic rescue from burning home
Despite intense publicity, mysterious hero almost wasn't identified
Tom Artiaga says he doesn't feel like a hero
It is sheer panic in the woman’s voice on the cell phone video as the flames shot out of the windows of the wood frame home: “There’s a man in there!”
The next sound on the video is a loud explosion, likely the propane tank of a barbeque grill.
“We gotta get the dad,” screams the woman.
The explosion forced two men who were trying to reach the trapped man away from the home. Seconds later, a man in a blue Los Angeles Dodgers cap jogs out with a 73-year-old man slung over his shoulder.
“Oh thank God!” says the woman who is recording the video, her relief as striking as her fear just seconds earlier.
The elderly man is stunned as the man in the blue cap lowers him. He’s wearing tubes that appear to help him breathe. We later learn he was attached to an oxygen tank, highly explosive in a house fire. On the video, you can see other people on the street run up to assist him.
What you don’t see is the moment the man in the blue cap disappears, vanishing before firefighters arrive or anyone gets his name.
“I didn’t see him,” says Beth Lederach, the woman who recorded the dramatic weekend fire and rescue on her cell phone. “He went on his way, just disappeared.”
Lederach, as she reviewed her video, saw something even more extraordinary. In the seconds before the explosion of the propane tank, you can see the man in the blue cap calmly walk towards the burning home, flames nearing 20 feet high. The explosion that forced others away from the house didn’t stop the man in the blue cap.
“He calmly walks in there, calmly. Then here he comes, carrying the dad,” recalls Lederach.
Then he vanished.
For 48 hours, the Fresno fire department and local reporters hunted for the mysterious hero, flashing his image all over area news outlets. Who was he? Why would he dive into a burning home, save a man and then not stay long enough for even a simple “thank you”?
“There’s over half a million people in Fresno and this guy’s picture is all over the news and nobody could find him,” says Fresno fire department spokesman Koby Johns. While the fire department urges people to not dive into the middle of a fire for their own safety, Johns can’t help but be impressed by seeing ordinary people at their best. “For a civilian to do that, it’s truly remarkable. There are some people, wired in such a way that when that moment presents itself, they don’t think about self-preservation. They think about help. That’s what makes them heroes.”
Several men appeared to help the elderly man, all of whom came forward in the first 24 hours. But the mystery lingered… who was the man in the blue Dodgers cap?
Perhaps the man who wanted to know most was Robert Wells, the 73-year-old man who was carried to safety on the man’s back. “He snatched me up and away we went. Bouncing on his back, hands like this, wow. That was one helluva ride.”
I met Wells at the Red Roof Inn, the day before he and his were going to have to leave. Out of money and distraught about where to go, Wells, his daughter and granddaughter said the fire destroyed everything they owned.
Wells has only about 25% lung capacity, as the result of COPD and emphysema. They are clearly struggling. But Wells was quick to point out he didn’t lose his life, thanks to a heroic act of a man he’d never met. What he hoped for most was to say thank you to the mystery man.
“He’s gonna be on my mind the rest of my life,” says Wells.
It appeared the man would never be found, that this might become Fresno folklore.
But in this age, social media has a way of making sure all secrets are uncovered.
It’s a little unclear exactly how it happened, but a Facebook post from a relative of the man in the blue cap mentioned he knew the hero. Local reporters pounced.
Tom Artiaga groaned as the reporters starting banging on his door.
“I didn’t want the glory,” he says sheepishly, wearing the same blue Dodgers cap he had on as he walked calmly towards Wells’ burning home. “I don’t want it.”
Artiaga can barely look at me as I prod him, so uncomfortable is he talking about himself.
Artiaga says he was driving by when he saw the fire and heard the screaming about the trapped man inside. He parked his white truck and walked slowly towards the fire. The 49-year-old devoted husband, father of three and grandfather of five didn’t think about what he had to lose. A man who spends his free time helping out elderly people in his neighborhood with their gardens naturally thought about what he could do to help.
“That’s when the explosion went,” he says. “I just ducked, and seen the old man in the yard. He was on that machine. He couldn’t walk.” Artiaga, whose stocky and muscular frame still reflects his younger years as an athlete, knew he could easily carry the elderly man out.
“I put him on my shoulder. Picked him up. Let’s go.”
As Artiaga lowered Wells from his shoulder, he saw Beth Lederach recording the rescue on her cell phone. In the same way his instinct was to walk towards Wells, Artiaga decided to walk away.
Artiaga saw his picture in the paper and the video on the local news. He couldn’t escape the video that was flying across Facebook and Twitter. He hoped his wife wouldn’t find out because he didn’t tell her. He hoped the story would fade and he could go back to his job as a delivery man for a liquor company, without anyone connecting the video to him.
“Why,” I ask. “Most of us liked to be thanked.”
Artiaga’s eyes begin to fill with emotion. “We have to help each other out. We kill each other. We fight. We gotta help each other out. I don’t feel like a hero. If it was someone else, I’d help them, too.”