Father tosses children to firefighters to escape flames

    Firefighters emerge from an apartment following a Friday morning fire. Six people were transported to the hospital. (Photo by Ryan Pfeil)

    Medford firefighters saved four children from an apartment fire Friday morning, catching a 2-1/2-year-old and 9-month-old who were tossed by their father from a second-story balcony into their waiting arms below, and rescuing two girls age 3 and 5 from a smoke-filled bedroom.

    Police and firefighters were trying to determine a possible link — if any — between the fire and an incident less than nine hours earlier, when a woman who lives in the apartment where the fire started suffered serious injuries after being struck by a car on South Pacific Highway Thursday night.

    “It’s a very coincidental thing,” said Melissa Cano, Medford emergency manager. “We’re truly not sure if there’s a connection.”

    Tonya Kaylee Johnson, 51, was crossing South Pacific Highway near Lowry Lane at about 9 p.m. Thursday when she was hit by a car. She was rushed to a local hospital and remains in the intensive care unit, police said.

    The driver of the vehicle, a 1998 Toyota Camry, remained on scene and cooperated with authorities, police said. The car had been traveling about 40 to 45 mph, within the speed limit, and the driver had “very little time to react,” according to Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau.

    “At this point we have more questions than answers, and hopefully we’ll figure some of that stuff out as the case unfolds,” Budreau said. “We’ll have to see what the fire investigation reveals.”

    The fire started at about 5:35 a.m. in apartment No. 50 of the Cedar Tree Apartments complex at 2300 E. Barnett Road.

    “When that first unit from Medford arrived, they upgraded it quickly to a three-alarm fire,” said Cano, adding that one apartment was fully engulfed. The fire had begun to spread to a second unit on the same floor, which blocked the stairwell exit for both apartments, according to fire officials.

    Firefighters could hear a woman from the second apartment screaming to get her children out of the building.

    “Firefighters immediately began cooling down the doorway to make entry, while an additional arriving engine carried ladders to the upstairs balcony,” a Medford Fire-Rescue release said. A man who lived in the second unit grabbed his 2-1/2-year-old and 9-month-old sons and “tossed the children down below to firefighters,” who immediately took them to safety.

    Firefighters then entered the second unit and began searching for two more children they’d been told were inside. They made their way into a bedroom but had no visibility and had to feel their way around the room. They located a 3-year-old girl “crouched and crying under the bed and a 5-year-old girl, unconscious, on a top bunk bed,” the release said.

    Firefighters carried the girls out of the burning building, and one firefighter began CPR on the 5-year-old while Mercy Flights raced to the scene. Two adults, a man and a woman, in the apartment escaped without serious injury, although the man injured his knee jumping from the balcony after tossing his children to firefighters. The woman left the building under her own power.

    The 5-year-old has been transported to a Portland hospital for “extensive” burns on her legs and feet, while the 3-year-old was treated for smoke inhalation at a local hospital. The 3-year-old was expected to be on oxygen the remainder of the day. No additional details were available on the 5-year-old, but the outlook was “positive,” Cano said. The two other children and both adults have all been discharged from the hospital.

    All six people who were rescued lived in the apartment next to Johnson’s apartment, where the fire started.

    Firefighters performed multiple searches of Johnson’s apartment but could not find anyone. It was later determined she had been the one who was struck on South Pacific Highway.

    David Robles, who lives near the burned apartment, was sleeping when he awoke to a man screaming for help.

    “(I) came to my window, which is right next door, underneath,” Robles said. “I thought it was someone having a scuffle out here or something.”

    What was happening quickly became apparent when Robles saw the glow from flames billowing out of the structure. Robles and his three roommates fled their apartment safely, along with his dog.

    “It was about 30 seconds between the time where I woke up, got everyone out of the house,” Robles said. “Thirty seconds or a minute, not even. And the flames were already raging out of the window. It was already really, really bad.”

    Additional engines arrived from Medford Fire-Rescue, Jackson County Fire District 3, Jackson County Fire District 5 and Jacksonville Fire, Cano said. Crews had the flames knocked down within 20 minutes. Most of the fire was contained to Johnson’s apartment, though the second unit sustained some smoke and fire damage.

    Numerous engines from responding agencies parked on East Barnett Road between Ellendale Drive and Black Oak Drive during the response, with the road closed to traffic, though it was back open by about 9:30 a.m.

    Power crews shut off electricity, and the four-unit building had to be evacuated, but a Rogue Valley Transportation District bus was on scene, available for anyone who wanted to keep warm in the chilly dawn hours. The American Red Cross was also contacted to help assist the displaced residents.

    The cause of the fire is not yet known, but fire marshals were on scene trying to pin that down Friday.

    Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com or at 541-776-4468. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

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