FRESNO, Calif. – Rick Freund was driving home from watching car races one late summer night in 1971 when he spotted a section of sky illuminated by what had to be fire. Driving toward the light, the 24-year-old discovered a Fresno home engulfed in flames, three little girls in nightgowns standing on their front lawn, and their mother wailing, "My baby! My baby! Where is my baby?"
Firefighters hadn't arrived yet, so Freund and deputies from the Fresno County Sheriff's Office approached the baby's bedroom window. One of the deputies shattered it with a baton, then hoisted Freund — who was the thinnest — through the window. Inside, he found a room filled with smoke, flames fast approaching, and a smiling baby in a crib. He scooped up the infant and passed the child through the window, then pushed himself out, bloodying his back and hands in the process.
Then he walked away, without even knowing whether the baby he saved was a girl or a boy.
Forty-six years later, Freund finally found out when the family he helped tracked him down to share their thanks for the first time.
Freund learned that the baby he saved was a boy: Robert "Bobby" Magee. And Freund learned that because he saved him, Magee had helped save hundreds of other lives.
Magee is now a 47-year-old father of three who has been organizing a large blood drive for the past 18 years with a business partner at the Pumpkin King Pumpkin Patch in Fresno.
"We put a lot of sweat and blood and tears into that blood drive," Magee said of more than 18,000 units of blood that have been collected for the Central California Blood Center, "and I guess that will be what I'm most proud of, that every year we get to go down there and save lives."
The reunion between Magee and Freund was facilitated by one of Magee's sisters, Cyndee Farr-Gutierrez. Her search for Freund began after she wrote a story for a college class about the fire. It got her thinking more about how her family never got the chance to thank the good Samaritan who saved her baby brother's life.
She wrote Freund a thank-you letter and e-mailed the Fresno Bee to see whether it could be printed as an advertisement. Her family knew Freund's name, but they hadn't been able to find him.
She hoped Freund might see her thank-you in the Bee if he still lived in Fresno. Instead, the Bee found Freund for her.
When the families met, the visits were filled with gratitude and Freund happily answering questions about what he remembered from the night of the blaze on July 2, 1971. Freund, a former military policeman for the Army who owns a trucking business, was then a student at Fresno City College.
Magee's mother, Carol Magee, died in 2003 without being able to personally thank the man who rescued her son. But her gratitude was printed in a 1971 story about Freund being nominated for a meritorious service award.
She wrote her thank-you letter in her son's name, who was just four months old at the time: "You brought me to safety and disappeared before my parents could express their gratitude. But heroes don't want to be thanked. Thank you is too inadequate for saving my life. … You saw it had to be done and you did it. We will never forget you."
Minutes after the rescue, the ceiling collapsed and flames engulfed the child's bedroom.
Freund's heroic actions that day were far from his last. He has since performed the Heimlich maneuver on a stranger choking on food, and administered CPR on an elderly woman who had a heart attack at a funeral, and later, on a dog injured during a hunting trip.
Farr-Gutierrez says it was a blessing to finally be able to thank the man who saved the brother she loves so much.
"When someone does something like that," she says, "I don't know if they know how much it means to somebody else and the lives they change by a simple act. A simple act of kindness can mean so much."