CUDAHY — Even though he has been interviewed by television reporters, congratulated by friends and honored by city officials, 12-year-old James Lewis has not gotten used to being hailed as a hero.
"It's weird," said Lewis, who is more comfortable riding his bicycle or playing basketball with his buddies.
He was thrust into the limelight in May when he snuffed out flames that threatened the lives of two boys who had been set on fire accidentally. Another youth playing with gasoline in the parking lot of the Atlantis Motel, where all three lived, caused the fire, police said.
Last week, the Cudahy City Council awarded Lewis a commendation. More than 150 people gave him a standing ovation during the meeting.
Lewis' commendation is believed to be the first of its kind.
Cudahy has "given awards to police officers, but this is probably the first citizen," City Clerk Ebbie Mouton said.
In June, Lewis also received an Heroic Action Award from officials in nearby Bell.
'Outstanding Future Leader'
Lewis was described as "an outstanding future leader" of Bell and Cudahy in the commendation presented to him by Bell city officials and Police Chief Manuel E. Ortega of the Bell-Cudahy Police Department, which provides police services to both cities.
Lewis said two policemen who came to his school to tell him "You did a good deed," each gave him $5 and told him to buy "hamburger, fries and a Coke."
The youth passed up the food and purchased a T-shirt and some shorts with the $10.
Lewis, a student at Nimitz Junior High School in Huntington Park, lives at the low-rent Atlantis Motel with his parents, Helen Acuna and James Lewis Sr., and four other sisters and brothers.
Lewis was in the motel's parking lot on May 15 when a 14-year-old youth lit a match near gasoline that he had poured onto the asphalt, police said. The flames leaped around the two children who were playing there. Lewis beat out the fire with his bare hands and threw Raul Silav, 10, to the ground, smothering the fire in the boy's clothing. He then pulled a burning jacket off Phil Kowal Jr., 6. Kowal received first- and second-degree burns on his face, neck and left arm. Silav and Kowal have since moved out of the motel.
The 14-year-old, who police declined to identify, was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon but was later released. The fire was determined to be an accident, police Cmdr. Steve Webber said.
Police Chief Ortega said of Lewis: "His quick, courageous action certainly reduced the injury to the 6-year-old, and very likely saved the lives of both boys."
And why did Lewis do it?
"I just didn't want to see anyone burned," said Lewis, who wants to be a professional basketball player like his hero Byron Scott of the Los Angeles Lakers.