Donnell Gibson was driving to work in St. Paul Wednesday afternoon when he saw “huge” flames leaping from a fully engulfed house at Western Avenue and Front Street.
Then he saw something that made his heart sink — three small children standing near the house next door, which also was starting to burn.
Gibson, 29, pulled a U-turn, jumped out of his car and began shouting for the children to get away from the house. Instead, they ran inside.
Gibson ran in after them and pulled them out, then ran back in — over and over again — to rescue the rest of the family — about 10 members in all.
And he got every one.
“It felt like when you open the oven door,” he said of the intense heat and danger. “I kept saying, ‘You gotta go, you gotta go, you gotta go NOW!’ ”
The harrowing rescue came on a day when temperatures in the metro area soared into the 80s and winds gusted to 40 miles per hour or more, contributing to fires in other parts of the region and prompting the state fire marshal to issue fire weather warnings because of the dry conditions. The high of 84 in Minneapolis broke a 133-year-old record.
St. Paul fire investigators said late Wednesday that a downed power line in a yard ignited vegetation that was carried by high winds to the homes at Western and Front. For Gibson, an East Side resident who works at a nearby recreation center, all that mattered in those terrifying minutes when the homes were in flames was getting everybody to safety.
Gibson, a Johnson High School graduate who participated in the city’s Summer EMS Academy in 2009, said he knew he had to do something when he saw the fire — and the children.
“I had to act,” he said.
Family members were upstairs and downstairs. Kyaw Kyaw Htue, 16, was asleep in the basement when he heard loud noises coming from upstairs.
“It was a stranger who came to warn us. I don’t know what would have happened if the man didn’t come into our house,” said Htue, a Humboldt High School student. “But I heard him shouting ‘Get out of the house!’ ”
One house was destroyed. Another one, where Htue’s family lived, and a garage also were heavily damaged by the flames, said John Mentzos, a district chief with the St. Paul Fire Department. No one was hurt.
Elsewhere Wednesday afternoon, a fire ripped through four newly constructed homes in Otsego, northwest of Minneapolis, emergency dispatchers confirmed.
Crews were still on the scene at 6 p.m. on the 5800 block of Radford Avenue NE., where high winds spread the flames to several acres of grassland. Aircraft from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources helped battle the fire. It remains unclear whether the homes were occupied at the time.
The state fire marshal issued fire weather warnings throughout the state, with red flag warnings in southwest Minnesota.
Various fire warnings are out for parts of central and southeastern Minnesota until Thursday evening.
In Sauk Rapids, two people are safe after escaping a house fire driven by strong winds. The St. Cloud Times reports the column of smoke could be seen from more than a mile away.
Staff writer Liz Sawyer contributed to this report.