James Smith had never met Jesse Avery before Monday morning. Just after 10 a.m., Smith looked around, shaken and draped in a blanket, hoping to give a heartfelt thanks to his neighbor.
That’s because Avery — an off-duty Vancouver firefighter — had just rescued Smith from his second-story unit at 711 E. 19th St. as a fire burned behind him.
“That is like the best kind of neighbor you could have,” Smith said.
With a load of laundry spinning in the dryer, Smith was taking a shower Monday morning when his smoke alarm started screaming. He rushed out, then opened the door where the smoke was coming from. Smith was greeted by a strong “yellow glow,” he said. He shut the door and went to the window facing 19th Street, leaning outside but still trapped.
Below, Avery was alerted by his mother-in-law and others on the street who noticed what was going on. Avery grabbed a ladder from his garage and propped it up near Smith’s window. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a pair of shorts, Avery climbed up and helped get Smith down to safety. The rescue was over in a matter of minutes.
“It felt like forever,” Smith said.
Smith was already out of the window by the time the first Vancouver Fire Department truck arrived on scene. Crews had the fire out less than 10 minutes after the initial 911 call, said public information officer Kevin Stromberg.
The fire caused an estimated $12,500 in damage, according to Stromberg. The exact cause remains under investigation, but the fire appears to have started behind the dryer, he said — right next to the bathroom Smith was in at the time.
The situation was familiar to Avery, who works out of the Vancouver Fire Department’s Walnut Grove station at Northeast 63rd Street and Andresen Road. The setting, however, was not. Monday was Avery’s day off.
“At work, you’re waiting for things to happen,” Avery said. “You’re not expecting to have to go to a fire when you’re sitting here with a cup of coffee watching your kids.”
Avery’s wife, Carey, concentrated on keeping the couple’s children inside during the rescue, she said. She works as a care manager and emergency room nurse at PeaceHeath Southwest Medical Center, and was scheduled to go in at 11 a.m. Monday.
“I just called my boss and said I’m going to be a little late today,” she said.
Smith was unhurt in the fire, and was the only person in the unit at the time. His two children were at school. The family’s gray cat, Chocolate, got out of the apartment, but took off amid the commotion, he said. Smith hadn’t seen the animal shortly after the fire, but hoped to find it.
All of Monday’s events played out about as well as they could have, according to Stromberg. He said Smith and others did everything right — from the 911 call to shutting the door where the fire was before moving away.
“It was textbook of what you should do in that situation,” Stromberg said.