Off-Duty Firefighter Rescues Couple From Christmas Blaze in Staten Island

SI Advance - December 27, 2011

by Jillian Jorgensen

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Some might call it a Christmas miracle. But firefighter Steven Carl, who was off-duty when he rescued a couple from the second floor of a burning home Christmas night, just calls it being in the right place at the right time. "I was glad I was able to help them out -- they were in a bad spot," Carl, 37, of South Beach, said yesterday.

Carl was driving down Atlantic Avenue in Dongan Hills, on his way home from Christmas dinner with his parents. His family was with him in the car when he spotted flames coming from 138 Atlantic Avenue around 11:45 p.m.

21st Battalion Chief Michael McLaughlin said by then, there was heavy fire venting from the front floor, and it had spread to the top floor and the attic. Two people, a couple in their 60s, were still trapped in their upstairs residence, and flames had pushed them out onto a back balcony, McLaughlin said.

"There they were trapped, exposed to heat and smoke from the second floor, as well as fire venting from the first floor," McLaughlin said.

That's when Carl stepped in, having seen the fire before his colleagues at Engine 161 and Ladder 81 in South Beach arrived. He ran out of his car and into the back yard, where he found an old ladder. He climbed up to the balcony, where Mary and Robert Strafer were trapped, Mary with burns to her hands, and Robert with lacerations on his face.

Carl climbed up -- but the ladder was old, he said, and it gave way under him.

"I was hanging on the balcony," he said.

Asked what was going through his mind as he hung there, in the midst of a rescue, surrounded by flames, Carl was succinct: "Holy (expletive)," he said.

A neighbor on the ground below him helped steady the ladder, getting it to just under the balcony and allowing Carl to get the Strafers -- along with a 20-year-old cat -- out of the house. If he hadn't gotten there, Carl said, the couple might have had to jump.

"They would have had to jump on to the cement, or they would have succumbed to the smoke or got burned," he said.

McLaughlin, the battalion chief, said if it weren't for Carl's quick intervention, the injuries to the Strafers would have been much worse, and they might have even been killed.

"This was a desperate situation," McLaughlin said. "His deliberate and decisive actions, I can say with confidence, made a difference."

McLaughlin said Carl's work was outstanding, and he would be nominated for a citation -- but any firefighter, off-duty or not, would spring into action in the same situation.

Christmas lights on a Christmas tree started the blaze, McLaughlin said.

"Christmas trees go extremely fast, and generate incredible heat," McLaughlin said.

A woman who lived downstairs, identified by neighbors as Catherine Pellegrino, made it out of the house on her own. She suffered burns to her face and hands -- and neighbors said she was trying to get her two dogs out of the residence.

"I saw a lady in a nightgown with her face burned was screaming her babies were inside," Carl said.

One dog survived, but another, who neighbors said woke Ms. Pellegrino up during the blaze, did not survive.