A night of hanging out and playing Nintendo’s Mario Kart was winding down for six Rutgers University-Camden students when a real-life adventure broke out. Within minutes, they would end up saving the life of a 90-year-old neighbor.
It was about 12:15 a.m. Friday when Tammy Meneses and Vanessa Solis-Palma had had enough of video games at the apartment of friends near campus and decided to head home. As they stepped outside onto Market Street, they noticed the smell of smoke in the crisp night air.
Then they saw flames erupting from a window of a duplex a block away.
Meneses, 22, a nursing student, called the four friends she and Solis-Palma had just left. What happened next “went from zero to 100 really quick,” she said.
All six students ran to the three-story brownstone on the 200 block of Cooper Street, across from a university dormitory, and were stunned by the spreading blaze – and the silence. No sirens. No smoke alarms.
Equally distressing: no one was fleeing the burning building. Solis-Palma, a childhood-studies major, immediately dialed 911. Another friend, Corey Zytko, 22, a senior majoring in business marketing, alerted a nearby campus security officer.
Jonathan E. Perez-Gaytan, 22, a mathematics senior, knew students lived in one half of the duplex, and an older couple on the other side – the one on fire.
Frantically trying get people out, the students screamed, rattled fences and desperately banged on windows. One of them, Matteo Resanovic, 23, also a mathematics major, went on impulse.
“I wasn’t really thinking. I just broke the front door glass,” he said, using first an elbow, then a fist, to shatter the panel, before reaching in to unlock the door. Resanovic cut his hand in the process.
Resanovic, Perez-Gaytan and Zytko raced inside and up the stairs toward the growing blaze yelling, “Fire! Fire!”
To Zytko, their response was “Fire 101. You’re taught as a kid get everyone out of the building, knock on all the doors. I was just going with it.”
He and Perez-Gaytan managed to awaken the 90-year-old man on the second floor. Together they guided him down the stairs and over the broken glass.
Supported by the two students, the man – whose name was not available Saturday – stood on the sidewalk dressed in only a T-shirt and boxer shorts, shivering in the cold. One of the students had run back inside the duplex, returning with slippers and several coats to keep him warm. But the man was more concerned with someone still inside. “Where’s my son?” he asked.
“I went in one more time after he asked me to look for his son,” Resanovic said. “I went to the third floor and saw the room was just engulfed. I yelled a couple of times and didn’t hear anything. I thought it would be better not to open that door.”
The 63-year-old son was found dead in a back bedroom on the third floor, according to Camden City officials. The elderly man’s wife was not home at the time of the fire.
Firefighters had arrived by the time the students, joined by Sehwan “Ricky” Park, a psychology student from South Korea, had gotten the elderly man to safety. The fire was declared under control within 30 minutes. The students left before anyone got their names.
“I think it was really amazing that they considered the community and other people and their safety over themselves,” Mary Beth Daisey, vice chancellor of student affairs at Rutgers-Camden, said Saturday.
As word of the fire circulated, there was talk of mystery heroes. The students were reluctant to come forward. Even Zytko’s mother didn’t know the truth.
“Did they find the good Samaritans?” she asked him Saturday. “Ma, that was me,” he said he told her.
Resanovic even downplayed his injury.
“It’s nothing compared to what the old man lost,” he said. “I just regret not being able to get the guy’s son.”