For the third time in his life, Lt. Cmdr. Anthony Kucia has saved someone from certain death, by acting on instinct and without really thinking about it.
The department head of clinical services for Naval Branch Health Clinic, Port Hueneme, was at his brother’s home in McHenry, Ill., over the holiday when a fire broke out at the townhouse complex next door.
Using the skills he learned over 32 years in the Navy, Kucia jumped into action, repeatedly running into the smoke and past the flames to pull out three people and their dog.
By the time it was over, only a neighbor’s cats had perished.
“I close my eyes and I can still see it as clear as day,” Kucia said nearly three weeks later as he recounted the incident from his office. “It was like watching a movie — but this was for real.”
Kucia, 50, was playing board games with his family the night of Dec. 26. It was after 9 p.m., and a lot of the neighbors, exhausted the day after Christmas, had already gone to bed.
“We’d just finished a game of Uno,” he recalled. “Someone stepped outside and smelled smoke.”
It was already far from a silent night, with wind ripping through the area. Temperatures were in the teens.
Suddenly, mixed with the sound of the wind, were several loud pops.
The building next door was made up of four attached townhouses. The garage door of one townhouse was open, and the sound they’d just heard was the car inside losing its tires to flames and intense heat.
Flames, whipped by the wind, were quickly spreading. A woman stumbled out and said that except for her cats, she was the only one in the townhome. Kucia ran to the back to try and get the cats out.
“All I could think of was the movie ‘Backdraft,’” Kucia said.
Then, through the second-floor window of the adjacent townhome, he noticed a green Christmas light. He realized there was a chance someone was inside.
Kucia began banging on the door, yelling “Fire!” and “Get out!”
He saw a light turn on.
“I knew I had to act quickly, so I just said a prayer, ‘God, please protect me,’ and I made my way through the back patio door,” Kucia said.
The smoke was thick, and flames had reached the unit. A man was standing at the bottom of the stairs with his wife, small child and dog that stood almost waist-high.
“I thought I was going to get bitten,” Kucia said. “But there wasn’t any time to waste. The man was totally discombobulated, and the screams of the wife and child echoed throughout the home.”
The fumes were terrible, he recalled.
“I know it’s not the fire that kills most victims,” he said. “It’s the fumes.”
Kucia grabbed the 4-year-old and ran with the child and her mother out to safety. The man stayed behind, insisting he needed to find his second dog.
Kucia ran back in and brought out the one large dog, hoping it would help coax the confused man out of the burning building.
It worked; on his third try, Kucia got the man out. He later learned that the second dog had made its way to safety and was found alive and well.
The cats that lived in the unit where the fire started did not survive.
Firefighters arrived several minutes after everyone was out and were able to contain the flames to just the two units. Two other units sustained heavy smoke damage. All in all, damage was estimated at more than $250,000. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.
Kucia’s family temporarily took in the couple, their young daughter — and the dogs.
“The owners were in obvious shock, but the dogs recouped quickly, eating all the cat food they could find,” Kucia said.
His heart aches for the two families who lost everything the day after Christmas.
“I feel bad for those families,” he said. “Then again, with God’s grace, they’re still alive.”
There have been two other times when Kucia saved lives without really thinking about it.
Right after high school, just before he joined the Navy, he jumped into a pool to save a friend who had hit her head in a dive and was knocked unconscious.
Another time, he was whitewater rafting with an elderly couple when a life preserver became snagged on a branch, tipping over the canoe. The man reached the riverbank, but Kucia heard the woman cry out that she couldn’t swim, so he made his way over to her and pulled her to shore.
“My dad tells me the couple still talks about it when they run into him, even after all these years,” he said.
Before leaving Illinois, Kucia was interviewed by a Chicago ABC News affiliate and became a local hero. He’s taken it in stride, but his wife, Aphrodite, is still reeling from her husband’s experience.
“Even though you’re looked on as a hero by many, my wife reminds me that she could have been a widow,” Kucia said. “I love my family very much, and I understand where she is coming from. But I did what I felt I had to do.”