The screams of a neighbor, a man Dawn Ryan knew only in passing, woke her about 3:30 a.m. yesterday. Looking out a window, she saw his house on fire and yelled to her husband, Jack, who called 911 and then bolted out of their Perry Hall home in his pajamas.
About the same time, Stacey Cosentino awoke to a bright orange glow beaming into her bedroom window. As her eyes adjusted, she realized her next-door neighbors' rear deck was on fire. She, too, prodded awake her husband, Richard, who jumped out of bed and ran outside.
In the middle of the night, as smoke, heat and flames buffeted them, the two men embarked on a remarkable rescue with just their hands, quick thinking and an aluminum ladder.
They saved four members of an extended family they hardly knew in the seven minutes before the first Baltimore County firefighters arrived.
"Extraordinary heroism" - that's how the Fire Department's spokeswoman described their acts, which helped rescue the family: 5-year-old Colin Chen; 7-year-old Jade Chen; father Liang "John" Chen; his wife, Chun Chen; grandfather Yan Chen; and grandmother Yu Chen.
All six were hospitalized, but the children were released from the hospital last night. The adults remained in critical condition last night; the grandfather suffered the worst injuries.
At one point, Jack Ryan ran into the burning house to rescue the grandfather, who had rushed back into the house to save his wife and grandson. Ryan found him collapsed in the foyer and yelled to Cosentino to help carry him out.
"I tried to stop him, but he ran in," Ryan, a teacher for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 24, said at his house hours after the rescue.
Sitting next to him was Cosentino, his left sneaker bearing a smear of the grandfather's blood.
"That was just the most horrible experience," said Cosentino, 42, an assistant dean at George Washington University's School of Engineering and Applied Science. "I can't even believe it."
The fire, which remained under investigation, destroyed the two-story Colonial-style home in the 5000 block of Forge Haven Drive in the Glenside Farms development. Most of the rear wall and the roof burned away or collapsed. State property records show that Yan Chen and his wife bought the house in 2002.
The flames were so intense that the exteriors of three neighboring houses were also damaged.
Elise Armacost, the Fire Department spokeswoman, said the family of six was in the home when the fire broke out. The mother, daughter and grandfather escaped on their own, though the grandfather was critically injured when he ran back inside.
Encountering one another outside the burning house, Cosentino and Ryan spotted the grandmother and boy pleading for help from a second-story front window. They yelled to her to drop the child to them but she was too scared. Perhaps overcome by heat and smoke, she at last let the boy fall into their arms, the men said.
Moments later, the woman jumped, and the men caught her. Neither woman nor child was injured in the jumps.
"That's the only picture I see right now - their faces mashed against the glass," Cosentino said.
Next, Ryan discovered that the grandfather had run back into the house, and he and Cosentino carried the unconscious man out.
Moments later, the neighbors saw the father, John Chen, standing outside a second-story window on a ledge. Dawn Ryan got an aluminum ladder, which the neighbors propped against the house for the man to climb down to safety.
The grandfather and mother were taken to the burn unit at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. Colin and Jade were sent to Johns Hopkins Children's Center. Their father and grandmother went to Maryland Shock Trauma Center but were later transferred to Hopkins.
The Ryans, who have lived in the neighborhood for six years, and the Cosentinos, who have lived there for five, said they didn't know the Chen family well. But when they saw them facing disaster, they didn't hesitate to rush to help.
"We just knew it was the right thing to do," said Dawn Ryan. "This is what neighbors do."
See more photos from the fire at baltimoresun.com/maryland