Just after midnight on March 3, 2016, Paul Potier Jr. found himself trapped in his bedroom in his upstairs apartment in the 100 block of Second Street in Shillington. He couldn't get out and he couldn't breathe.
"It's been over a year and I'll never forget that morning." Potier recalled. "I just started smelling some smoke. I opened my door and I just couldn't get down the stairs. It was just too pitch black, you know."
He made his way to a window.
"All the smoke was coming up from the basement, coming right up in my face, so I just had to do the best I could to breathe, and it was hard. It seemed like forever when you're dying." Potier explained.
Firefighter Eric Kohl, with Shillington's Keystone Fire Company No. 1, was one of the first on the scene.
"I remember, as we made the turn into the alley, the black smoke just, I mean, darker than I have ever seen, and then you see the silhouette of Paul hanging out the window," Kohl recalled.
"We rounded the corner and the chief says, 'There's your guy. He's at the window,'" Bruce Squibb, the fire marshal, said. "He yelled at me to do the rescue, he'd throw the ladder."
Just one command and the plan was in motion. The Keystone firefighters were on the ground, including Chief David Bentz.
"We set the ladder so it's just at the bottom of the windowsill. We put it on a little bit steeper climbing angle," Bentz said.
"I had the hose line on my shoulder walking to the basement door and I remember the chief telling him, 'Brother, don't grab the ladder. We're coming to get you,'" Kohl said.
"I climbed up and Paul was there," Squibb said. "I asked if he could get spun around, but he said, 'No. My legs are on fire. My legs are burning.' Kinda grabbed him and pulled him out head first."
"I remember when Bruce came up the ladder and then he pulled me out," Potier recalled. "You know, I'm bigger than he is, but he just pulled me right out. I couldn't believe he carried me down like that. Yeah, he saved my life."
As Potier was pulled out, firefighters were going in.
"I remember how hot water was coming back down off the ceiling, down on us as we were fighting the fire, how hot the water was," Kohl said.
They would later learn the details about the fire's intensity. A gas line in the basement had ruptured and the fire was being fueled by natural gas.
Potier and three others were treated for burns and smoke inhalation. A cat was rescued from an armchair.
"All that time away from family all paid off in that one night for this save and made a difference," Bentz said.
The firefighters will be recognized as American Red Cross fire safety heroes during the annual Berks County Heroes breakfast on May 11 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Wyomissing. You can buy tickets online or by calling the Red Cross in Reading at 610-375-4383.
Other heroes who will be honored at the breakfast are in the categories of law enforcement, medical, 911 dispatch, adult good Samaritan, youth good Samaritan, military, animal rescue, and community impact. You can watch profile pieces of each one on 69 News in the days ahead.
Below is video of the first story on the law enforcement hero, Berks County Deputy Sheriff Terry Ely.
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