Buffalo firefighters Jeff Kane and Bob Carnevale work on opposite sides of the city, but their paths crossed Friday on the second floor of a burning Amherst Street apartment building on a day they were not even working.
Dozens of apartment dwellers are alive and well because of it.
The two off-duty firefighters each happened to be driving by a raging fire at the Amherst Street apartments Friday that forced the residents, some still in their pajamas, to flee for their lives.
The residents watched in horror as one woman jumped from a second-floor window to escape encroaching flames that lapped from the windows just moments after she threw herself out.
Meanwhile, Kane, Carnevale and an off-duty special agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration rushed into the building, none realizing the others were there. They crawled on their hands and knees and evacuated dozens of residents who were trapped inside.
Amazingly, there were no fatalities, but four people were reported injured, including the woman who leaped from the window and a fire chief who suffered a minor knee injury.
Fire investigators have not determined the cause of the blaze, which displaced about 50 people, but officials believe it started in the apartment from which the woman jumped.
“This could have been a tragic scenario,” said Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, who credited firefighters, including the two off-duty firefighters, as well as the DEA agent, who happened to be driving by as dark smoke billowed out of the three-story brick building.
The dramatic two-alarm fire was reported at 9:36 a.m.
Tammy Gee, who lives on the second floor, had just put on some face cream and was getting ready to hop into her shower when she heard a fire alarm ringing.
“We hear alarms go off all the time,” she said. “So I didn’t think anything of it.”
But then she heard someone running down the hall screaming: “It’s a real fire.”
Gee said she ran out of the building, knocking on neighbors’ doors on her way out.
Adrianus Rivethos, who lives on the third floor with his cat Bubi, recounted opening the door to hear what the commotion was all about.
“Smoke just billowed in,” he said.
Unable to make his way through the smoke, he went back inside his apartment and opened a window.
“I was hanging out the window waiting for someone to get me,” he said.
At the same time, the two off-duty firefighters and DEA special agent Joseph Bongiovanni were driving by.
Kane, of Engine 19, was driving on Amherst on his way to Pittsburgh.
Carnevale, of Engine 37, had just left work at his fire station on the West Side and was driving up Delaware.
Kane saw the woman who had just jumped from the window and helped her across the street.
Then, wearing only their street clothes and without any firefighting gear, both men raced separately into the apartment building, not realizing the other was there.
They both made their way to the second floor. Thick smoke filled the hallway as they crawled through it looking for people in need of assistance.
Kane described how he pounded on the floor to alert any trapped residents.
“If you can hear me, come this way,” he yelled.
He recounted seeing a dazed woman wandering in the hallway. “I just got up and grabbed her,” he said.
He pulled her over to a man in the stairway who helped her out.
Then he saw Carnevale.
“Bobby?” Kane asked.
“Jeff?” Carnevale replied.
“You’re a lot happier when you’ve got one of your brothers with you,” Kane said later.
By that time, fire crews had arrived and were battling the fire from ladders.
After the smoke cleared, firefighters helped Rivethos and his cat down the stairs along with other residents who had been trapped on the third floor.
After the fire, the two off-duty firefighters relaxed in a parking lot across the street. They said running into the fire was second nature to them.
“You don’t really think about it,” he said. “Your adrenaline just takes over,” Kane said.
Carnevale agreed. “You almost forget you’re not working. When you see smoke, you go in.”
Bongiovanni of the DEA said he saw the thick smoke and quickly pulled his truck onto a grassy area near the apartment building.
“I saw it billowing out of the building, and there was no one there, and then the girl falls,” he said.
The young woman, who neighbors reported to be about 30 years old, was carried across the street before Bongiovanni followed the firefighters into the building.
“It was just panic,” Bongiovanni said, “just people everywhere. I got as many people out as I could. The smoke was so bad on the third floor it was impossible to pass.”
The quick reactions of Kane and Carnevale, he said, helped get confused residents out of the building fast.
“They knew what they were doing,” Bongiovanni said. “Thank God they came.”
Two police officers, Todd Saffron and Thomas Cino, also assisted on the call.
Damage to the building was estimated at $225,000.
The fire chief, as well as one of the three injured residents, were treated at Erie County Medical Center and released.
The other two residents, who police did not name, remained at the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, police said.