Balancing on a picnic table, Eliecer Ramirez-Vargas helped an older couple stand on his shoulders before he hoisted them to safety as their Hopkins condo burned behind them.

He said his profession -- a ballroom dancer -- gave him the strength he needed during the rescue.

"I could reach their legs -- because I am a dancer I am always doing tricks and lifts and knew how to get them down," he said on Monday, recalling the early-morning rescue.

Ramirez-Vargas and his fiancée, Rebecca Dahlquist-Eckhoff, were driving home after a long night of practice for a professional competition when he stepped out of the car and smelled smoke from the building next to theirs at the Meadow Creek condos in the 800 block of Old Settlers Trail.

He called 911, and said he then ran into the building. It was about 2:30 a.m.

"It was difficult to breathe," the 37-year-old dancer said. "I started hitting doors very hard, shouting 'Fire! Fire! Fire!' but it was very hard. People were not waking up."

Dahlquist-Eckhoff ran around the building and saw a unit in flames. Ramirez-Vargas said he went in the building three times, until it was too smoky. Three families eventually came out, he said.

The couple then stood outside and yelled to alert people to the blaze. When an older couple opened their second-floor window to ask what all the yelling was about, Ramirez-Vargas said, he stood on a picnic table as others steadied it. The two exited the window one after the other, planting their feet on the dancer's shoulders and their hands against the wall before dropping to the table and the ground.

When another man opened a second-floor window and complained that he could not breathe, Ramirez-Vargas said he moved the table under that window. The resident said he had to save his cat. He disappeared and returned, dropping a bag with the cat inside and then following his pet.

"He was so panicky he almost knocked me out," Ramirez-Vargas said.

Hopkins police Sgt. Michael Glassberg said the blaze was caused by careless smoking. Police are investigating, and the condo is considered a total loss, he said.

One person was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center with non-life-threatening injuries. The Red Cross is assisting some of the 14 displaced people with housing.

Glassberg said many residents were alerted by smoke detectors in their units. He said Ramirez-Vargas "was a huge help, and he probably saved some lives."

The dancer said that after police and fire personnel arrived and things calmed down, he and his fiancée drove away to clear their lungs. A quiet night, he said, turned out to be "pretty wild."

"We were just in shock, [thinking] did this really happen?"

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482