For the first time, we’re seeing video of the daring and emotional rescue of two children from a house fire in Mount Hope. The fire was so intense the children suffered critical burns and their older brother perished.
Video captured by a GoPro on one firefighter’s helmet shows just what fire crews were up against that early Monday morning last November.
It was just after midnight when flames roared to life inside the home on J Street.
Engine 12 rolled into the Mount Hope neighborhood within minutes of the 911 call.
When firefighters got to the house, they say it appeared that flames were shooting out of every window.
Immediately, a woman can be heard yelling to Firefighter Dallas Higgins, “There's three kids still in the house!"
The kids were in a room with a ladder sticking out of the window and they weren’t coming out.
Firefighter Joe Zakar was close behind.
"I came around the corner and I just see Dallas taking off in between the two houses,” he recalled.
"I just ran straight for the window, you know time, time is our enemy," Higgins said.
That’s when Higgins jumped through the window and entered the bedroom.
At this point in the video, the image is black. The room is so thick with smoke, the firefighter couldn’t see his hands.
Within seconds, he felt his way to a top bunk bed.
"Deep in that bunk I was able to find Nano, who was the oldest brother,” Higgins said. “It was too hot and too much time had elapsed for him.”
Then, Higgins heard moaning from the bunk below. He had found 5-year-old Luis Junior.
"At that point he was so close to me and I'm holding him and I remember he was wearing a little blue shirt and grey shorts and he was sitting right next to me and breathing and I could make out his face and mouth and I could hear him breathing," Higgins said.
Zakar remembers the moment he learned there was one survivor.
"Within I would say about 20 seconds of Dallas being inside I heard him go, ‘Hey I got one,’” Zakar said.
Zakar carried Junior to the street so he could be treated.
"I still can feel how warm Junior was, in my hands,” Zakar said. “That's the one thing that has stuck with me."
Higgins was still inside the room, looking in the dark for a third child.
"You know you're burning but you know you have a job to do so you just keep trying I kept trying to spend more time in there, spend more time looking for her," Higgins said.
The extreme heat was burning right through his protective gear so Higgins asked for help.
Zakar took over the search from there. Thanks to other crews fighting the fire, the smoke began to lift, just a bit.
"I'm leaning in the window my light goes down, his light comes back and you just sort of see a flash of pink," Higgins said.
It was 3-year-old Esmerelda. Zakar scooped her up and passed her through the window to his partner.
Watch the full video of the rescue here.
Heartbroken parents soon learned Nano did not make it out of the fire alive.
Esme and Junior were placed in medically-induced comas. She suffered burns over 60 percent of her tiny body. Junior was burned over 90 percent of his.
Almost a year later they children are still healing but they are not alone.
Images: Mount Hope Deadly House Fire
The family has allowed Higgins and Zakar to be a part of the healing process because not only are they healing, the firefighters are healing as well.
Little Esme has visited the fire station twice. They say they just let her take over the place. She's now well enough to go to preschool.
Her brother, Junior is at a hospital in Northern California. He needs more specialized care but he's walking now, even riding a tricycle.
The children's survival, their bravery is what these firefighters focus on.
"Seeing them where they were and to see them today just gives us that validation of you know what we did our job and we were at our best," said Zakar.
Higgins and Zakar have since been promoted to engineers and now, they're using that helmet camera video to help train other firefighters.
They received this year’s Medal of Valor from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department.
The Fire Rescue Foundation handed out the awards Friday at the annual Service Award Honoree Luncheon. NBC 7’s Catherine Garcia emceed the event which recognizes firefighters, paramedics, lifeguards and ordinary citizens who have done extraordinary things to help others in their time of need.
Higgins and Zakar also wanted to make sure we reported that the rescue was the effort of many very dedicated first responders that night.
As for the cause of the fire – it was an accident. An old heating unit malfunctioned and set a mattress on fire.