After Black Friday shopping until 3 a.m., the last thing the Heyl family wanted to hear was somebody banging on their door nearly five hours later.
But when an annoyed Jeffrey Heyl answered the door, he found his neighbor, Paul Shields, telling him to get out because his back deck was on fire.
"He saved our lives. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be alive," Kim Heyl said.
Mr. Shields, 20, was honored Dec. 17 for his heroism by Ross commissioners.
"I've spent 38 years in the fire service. I know what it takes to enter a burning building," said Commissioner John Sponcer. "Because of your efforts, four people are alive today."
Mrs. Heyl said the family had collapsed into bed after their marathon of shopping, and were all "out cold" when Mr. Shields began banging on the door.
"I started beating on the door to try to get somebody's attention to get them up," Mr. Shields said. "Jeff eventually came downstairs. He looked like he wanted to kill me at that point because it was so early in the morning."
After hearing that the deck was on fire, Mr. Heyl went back into the house, and Mr. Shields followed. Mrs. Heyl said she was coming out of the bedroom to see what was up, and Mr. Shields told her, "Don't ask questions. Grab the kids and get out."
The smoke had already started to seep into the living room. She said she awakened 8-year-old Kevin first because his bedroom was over the area that was on fire. "If my son had been 10 more minutes in the room, he wouldn't be here," she said.
Then she grabbed 11-year-old Krissy and, on the way out, she grabbed the collar of the dog, Baby Bear. The cat, Sally, however, could not be found during the evacuation.
It took more than seven hours for the fire to be extinguished completely.
"After the fire was all put out, we thought the cat was done," Mrs. Heyl said.
But Sally was found sitting on a windowsill, her claws embedded into the sill so far that it took a firefighter with gloves to extract her. "Other than smoke inhalation and a little cut on its paw, it came out perfect."
John Reubi, Ross fire marshal, said that, even though the family's smoke detectors were working, the intensity and speed of the fire would have hindered their escape from the house if Mr. Shields had not alerted them first.
"There is a chance that the smoke and heat would have made it impossible for them to get out," he said. "It was fully involved when it came in the sliding doors."
And, once it came through the sliding doors, it quickly spread through the dining room and up the stair tower, he added.
Mr. Reubi said the fire started from hot ashes from a wood-burning stove that were put on the concrete patio under the deck on Thanksgiving Day. It was a breezy day, he said, and the embers ignited a nearby kick-boxing dummy used by the Heyl children.
The wood used in decks is "highly flammable," he said, and the fire was also fed by plastic that Mr. Heyl had placed around the deck for winter.
Mrs. Heyl said the house was destroyed, and the family is currently staying with her in-laws in McCandless.
"The most precious things came out" of the house, she said. "Paul is a hero."
Mr. Shields, who is studying mechanical engineering at Pennsylvania State University, said he is amazed at all the attention he is getting.
He didn't think anything of the incident, and went to his part-time job at Willi's Ski Shop later that day. A co-worker who is also a neighbor spread the word.
"I never would have expected it to be this big of a thing, I guess. I'm glad I was there to help out," he said.
Under normal circumstances, he said he would have been asleep until noon, but he was getting ready to pick up his dad, who had taken his vehicle for service. In fact, the fire had spread so fast that his dad, who had left 10 minutes before, did not see anything amiss, he added.
Mr. Shields received a plaque from the township and a commendation from the state.
"No words can express how this township feels. We want more people just like you," said Commissioner Lana Mazur.neigh_north
Sandy Trozzo, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org