SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — A 76-year-old retired Glendale firefighter crawled through the front door of a neighbor's burning mobile home early Thursday and pulled her to safety in the dark as flames devoured the structure.
Julia Helmuth, 59, was in critical but stable condition in the burn unit at UCI Medical Center in Orange.
Firefighters said Helmuth is alive because of the quick actions of Dan R. Jordan, who heard the crackling of flames, threw on a shirt and shoes and entered the mobile home after another neighbor broke the latch to Helmuth's front screen door.
"I saw a lot of smoke coming at me," Jordan said Thursday afternoon from his porch, his ears, hands, pants and shoes still smudged with soot.
"I got on my knees and shined my flashlight," he said. "I could see her about five feet away. She was on her back and unconscious. I could see her face, shiny and swollen."
Jordan said he pulled Helmuth to the door, where her feet became tangled, and from there, neighbor John Preidt, 51, helped him carry the unconscious woman to safety.
The Orange County Fire Authority had received a call at 1:02 a.m. for help at the San Juan Mobile Estates at 32302 Alipaz St.
By the time firefighters arrived, the blaze was upgraded to a second alarm and was devouring Helmuth's mobile home and threatening nearby homes.
Fire officials credited Jordan with saving Helmuth and praised both neighbors for acting so quickly.
"She was outside by the time we arrived on scene," said Emmy Day, a Fire Authority spokeswoman. "So often these days people just stand around and wait for someone else to act. He really did the good-neighbor kind of thing."
Firefighters controlled the blaze by 1:31 a.m. Damage from the fire totaled $75,000--$50,000 to the mobile home, $15,000 to its contents and $10,000 to the woman's vehicle, which was parked in an attached carport.
The cause of the fire was under investigation.
A decade ago, volunteer firefighters installed free smoke detectors in all mobile homes at the park as part of a federally funded program directed at seniors, Day said. But it was unclear whether Helmuth's smoke detector went off, or whether it was maintained and working.
"Mobile homes go very fast in a fire," Day said. "The danger in a mobile home is greater than in a regular home, and it's complicated by the fact that they are very close in proximity to one another."
The fire was hot enough to scorch bushes and flowers in front of George Mueller's mobile home, across the street from Helmuth's home.
Mueller said flames shot out 20 feet from the front of Helmuth's home.
"I went to put my hand on the window and I couldn't," Mueller said. "It was too hot."
Jordan was a member of the Glendale Fire Department from 1951 to 1960. He then worked as a union steamfitter until 1978 when he retired and moved to San Juan Capistrano with his wife of 56 years, Lois.
Lois Jordan, 76, said she and other neighbors had urged her husband not to enter the mobile home because the fire was spreading quickly.
"We were afraid it was going to explode," she said. "But he's just very determined. I think it was very brave to do it."
Dan Jordan said he was awake and reading the newspaper when he heard the fire crackling. He figured his firefighter training must be ingrained in his head.
"Everyone says I'm a hero," he said. "I say no. That's because heroism is a combination of insanity and fear. I figured there was a human in there and I should at least try to get them out."