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Al Martinez

A man alone, with nothing but his willingness to die for others ought not to go unsung. : A Lion in the Streets

November 19, 1987|Al Martinez

The small condo still smelled faintly of fire and water.

Scorched wires dangled from the ceiling, and the partly melted door of a refrigerator hung open.

What had been carpeting was reduced to charred fuzz. What had been walls were blackened slabs of sheet rock.

Rafter beams lay across the bare ceiling like the cremated ribs of a dead man. A blue tarp that covered the burned-out roof cast the room in a pale, surrealistic glow.

Wind whispered through heat-blasted windows. Rain fell.

"This is where the little girl was," Mike Knieriem said, pausing in the doorway of a charred bedroom.

He stood looking for a moment, remembering, then moved down the hall to another room.

"This is where I found the little boy. It was so black in here I couldn't see. The heat was killing me. I was ready to get out. Then there was a flash of light and I saw the kid on the floor.

"I always wondered where the light came from. It was like a strobe. First I thought it was the drapes exploding, but then I realized they'd gone long ago."

He shook his head. "You've got to wonder about that."

Heroes emerge from unlikely places. In war, they're the shyest guy in the company. In peace, the quietest man on the block.

Knieriem, 46, is the quiet man, the unlikely hero. At 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds, he doesn't even look heroic.

He says he's just an out-of-work driver of a delivery truck, living with a wife and two sons in an ordinary suburban neighborhood and, you say, "Sure, that's Mike, that's him."

Not a lion in the street, but another guy scratching for survival, looking for a job, worrying about tomorrow.

But then. . . .

Friday, Oct. 2, 10:15 p.m. Newbury Park, Ventura County.

Mike and Jan Knieriem had just returned home from watching their eldest son play football.

Jan was on the phone. Mike, getting ready for bed, had stripped to his sweat pants. No shirt, no shoes. Through an open window, he heard a cry for help.

He looked out and couldn't believe what he saw.

"There were flames shooting from the windows of a condo across the street. I knew there were two kids in there. I hollered for Jan to call 911. Then I ran."

Standing on the front porch of the burning unit was the young baby sitter of the two children who lived there: a boy, 4, a girl, 6. The baby sitter said the kids were still inside.

Knieriem didn't hesitate. The door and the doorway were sheets of flame. He took two steps into the burning building and a blast of heat knocked him to his knees.

He couldn't see. He couldn't breathe. Darkness was intensified by thick, black smoke that burned his eyes and clogged his throat.

Fire burned in glowing reds and yellows, like torches in a cave.

Mike dropped to his knees and began crawling down a hallway. The floor plan of the condo was the same as his . . . but in reverse. He bumped into burning walls and white-hot furniture, but he kept going.

"I opened the first bedroom door and the little girl was standing in the middle of the room crying," he said. "I grabbed her and pulled her to the front porch.

"I thought about running home and getting a wet blanket to protect myself, but I knew the boy was still in there, and, if he was going to live, I had to take my chances."

At such moments are heroes born: when instinct abates and a conscious decision prevails to risk everything for another human being.

Knieriem went back into the flames.

He groped down the hall to a second bedroom like a man crawling through hell, the entire condo now embraced in fire, temperatures soaring to 2,000 degrees.

Then that flash of light in the darkness, a small, seemingly lifeless body face down on the floor. Mike grabbed him and headed out, stumbling and gasping.

The boy wasn't breathing.

"I knew nothing about oral resuscitation," Knieriem said. "But I knew I had to blow in his mouth or he was gone. I kept hollering, ' Breathe! ' and pretty soon his stomach began to rise and fall. . . . "

He remembers pieces of the boy's charred skin on his hands and around his mouth. Then he passed out.

The little girl recovered. Her brother is still being treated. The parents thanked Knieriem, but nothing more.

This is what happens to heroes. He was kept two days in an intensive care unit, miraculously unburned but felled by the acrid smoke. He suffered fainting spells and had difficulty breathing.

Hospital bills have amounted to $6,000. He's still out of a job and his wife works only 20 hours a week. There's no medical insurance.

Had all of that been of abiding concern to Mike Knieriem on the chilly October night he heard a cry for help, two children would surely be dead. But it wasn't, and they owe him their lives.

In a society that honors men at arms, a man alone and with nothing but his willingness to die for others ought not to go unsung.

For that searing moment in Newbury Park, a true act of heroism occurred. And a lion was in the streets.

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