Thanks to Hurricane Isabel, Mitch White and the rest of the tenants in Ridgecrest Village in Southeast found themselves without power last Fridaywhich meant no television and no radio. By afternoon, the boredom had driven White and his girlfriend, Sandra Delacruz, into bed, partially dressed, with a deck of cards to play blackjack for pennies. But just as Delacruz had worked White down to his last 2 cents, she noticed black smoke rising right outside the bedroom window.
As they peered out at the smoke, they heard the tenant from downstairs pounding on their door. She was yelling something about a fire in her apartment.
White and Delacruz, who needed to get their clothes and shoes on, didn’t dawdle, but they didn’t hurry, either. White has lived in Ridgecrest Village since 1985spending his first 10 years as the apartment managerand he guesses he’s seen about 15 fires in his time there. “Lots of small cooking fires,” he says. “Usually nothing to worry about.”
But by the time he got dressed and opened the door, he was hit in the face by a rush of smoke. “I wasn’t counting on the woman downstairs leaving her door open,” says White.
As White was looking down the smoke-filled stairwell from the second floor, Jimmy Thornton, who lives across the hallway and had already escaped, was peering up the stairs from the ground-level entrance. Thornton was contemplating a run back to his second-floor apartment. “I needed my keys, my watch, my wallet, and my moneyespecially the money,” he says.
But Thornton and White both gave up on trying the smoke-filled stairway. Instead, White and Delacruz rushed to the dining-room window, which White says is always jammed. He had never been able to open it before. “I don’t know if it was adrenaline or what, but I slid it right up,” says White. He’s since shut the window and can’t reopen it.
White punched out the window screen, clasped Delacruz’s hands, and hung her out the second-floor window, dropping her into the arms of four neighbors. White then climbed through and dangled himself from the ledge, falling into the same arms. As they gathered themselves, they could hear bottles exploding in the burning apartment.
The six residents in the building all managed to escape. When they gathered together in the yard, they found out that the fire had started when a woman tried to use candles to light her apartmentan explanation that baffled them all, given that it wasn’t close to being dark yet. “We weren’t mad with her,” says White. “But it’s broad daylight. Why do you need to light candles?”
White says he couldn’t be angry in light of the more serious fires he saw during the neighborhood’s seedier dayssuch as when a drug addict set a Ridgecrest building ablaze in 1989. White helped rescue eight children from the building, earning himself a role in a re-enactment of the fire on the pilot episode of Rescue 911. When the CBS film crew came to Southeast, White spent the day catching dummy children dropped from windows. “I was really surprised that the dummy babies weighed as much as the real ones,” he says.
White, who still has the episode on tape, says none of the fires since then have been quite as memorable. The engine companies that responded that dayNos. 7, 8, 15, 25, 32, and 33have been his Powerball numbers ever since. One time he hit five of them. “That’s a thousand bucks,” he says. CP