Location: Huntington Beach, California
Date: August 29, 1991
On the morning of August 29, 1991, twelve-year-old Janel McInnes, of Huntington Beach, California, was babysitting her two-year-old brother, Tyson. Their mother, Denise DeVines, felt secure leaving her daughter in charge while she attended a business meeting. The children were upstairs, and Tyson was playing with a toy at the top of the stairway. He threw the toy downstairs and Janel told him to go down and pick it up.
Tyson went downstairs for his toy, then wandered into the kitchen where toy trucks were sitting on top of the stove. Tyson stood on a stool and reached for a truck. As he stepped down, his body inadvertently twisted a stove knob, causing a burner to ignite. Tyson went back upstairs, unaware that his other toy trucks were catching fire.
Janel smelled something burning. She looked over the upstairs railing and saw black smoke billowing up from the living room. Janel tried to run downstairs, but the heat drove her back. She pulled Tyson into her bedroom, closed the door, and placed a towel under the doorsill. She knocked out her window screen, but couldn't escape through the window. Then she dialed 911.
Huntington Beach Fire Department dispatcher Mary Ann Marcello answered the emergency call. "There's a fire in the house!" said the girl on the line. "We can't get out of the bedroom! There's too much smoke! I can't even breathe!" Janel told Marcello she and her brother were trapped in a second-story bedroom. While Marcello stayed on the line with Janel, she dispatched fire and rescue units to the scene. Janel's voice grew more panicky. Again, she told Marcello she couldn't breathe. "I can hear it!" she cried to the dispatcher. "Help us! I can hear the fire!" "Don't open the door," ordered Marcello. "Get down on the floor and stay down." Marcello was frightened. She'd been a dispatcher for many years and knew that people could perish from smoke inhalation in a matter of minutes. "Help!" Janel coughed into the phone. "Please help us!" Marcello listened as Janel coughed, overcome by smoke. She turned to her dispatch partner. "The firemen have to get into that building," she told her. "But it might not be soon enough."
Paramedic Dave McBride arrived with fire units. Firefighters decided on a simultaneous rescue attempt throught the upstairs window and through the front door. When McBride entered from the front, fire was rolling from the kitchen into the living room and visibility was next to nothing. McBride reached the top of the stairs and heard Janel's screams. He and the other firefighters reached the children and carried them out of the burning building. They were frightened but unharmed. When a report came over Marcello's radio that the victims had been rescued, she was very happy and relieved.
Janel is grateful to her rescuers. She recalls their arrival at her bedroom door. "I remember the vision of a fireman coming in the door and thinking, this is my hero." "Janel did everything right," praises McBride. "They could have died, but she remained calm." Janel says she learned what to do through fire safety lessons in school, and she learned to stay calm through junior lifeguard training.
Ironically, one week before the fire, Denise thought of installing new batteries in the smoke detector. "I feel guilty," says Denise, "when I think how this could have been avoided by changing a two-dollar battery. Her husband says everyone should know important smoke detectors are. "That morning, we needed it."