Seeing the flames shooting from the front of the St. Paul duplex Monday night, Richard Johann felt his instinct take over.

He knew kids lived there. They were always on their bikes or playing outside in the 1200 block of Albemarle St. Johann feared that the children and others were trapped inside.

It was about 7:30 p.m. Monday and he was standing outside the Tin Cup restaurant, 1220 Rice St., finishing his cigarette, when he saw the black smoke down the block.

“I thought, that’s no barbecue,” he said.

But he could think only about the children he often saw playing at the house.

Curious, he walked toward it. Then he ran. He ran past a guy, taking video of the fire.

“I wasn’t even thinking,” Johann said. “I just wanted to make sure there were no kids in there.”

He added, “The flames were so hot and so intense. It stopped me in my tracks. I could feel the heat on my face and arms.”

He ran along the side of the house, looking frantically to see if anyone was in the home.

“I had to get in,” he said. At the back of house, he pushed on the screen of an open window, pulled the blinds aside and put both hands into the opening, ready to pull himself into the duplex.

“I was shocked. There was a woman standing there, holding a baby,” Johann said. “She was just standing there, very calm. It was like she didn’t know anything was going on.”

Johann screamed that she had to get out. The woman handed the 7-month-old girl over to him and he handed the baby to his friend.

As police and firefighters arrived, Johann heard them yell: “ ‘Get away from the house. Get away from the house.’ I wasn’t going to listen. As the woman got closer to the window, I grabbed her and got her out.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Speaking late Monday night, Johann said the woman talked about a “couple of kids” who came by the house earlier, saying they were going to burn down the neighbor’s duplex.

St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard said the cause of the fire is arson and is being investigated. He credits Johann and a police officer with saving the lives of the woman and baby. No one else was in the duplex.

“Setting fire to an occupied dwelling is tantamount to murder,” Zaccard said. “Whoever did this could have killed this young mother and baby.”