Aireana McClellan, at left front, mom Latisha Miller, and sister Alayza McClellan celebrate their escape from the fi re with Toledo fi refi ghters Lt. Joe Schwanzl, left, Randy Roslin, Tony Salazar, Doug Haack, Jerry Saunders, and Brian Schoen.
Toledo Firefighter Randy Roslin turned his ax sideways and broke a hole in the wall about the size of a tall kitchen cabinet door.
The 51-year-old, wearing about 45 pounds of gear, stepped up and squeezed through the opening between Latisha Miller's burning central-city apartment and the adjacent unit.
He took the hose he was hauling as far as he could and doused flames coming down the hallway of the second-floor unit.
That's when he saw 7-year-old Aireana McClellan.
Aireana McClellan, 7, with her mother Latisha Miller in her sister's home on Elm Street.
"When I first saw [her], it looked like a doll's head on the floor," Mr. Roslin said, recalling the March 6 blaze at 401 West Bancroft St. "When I picked her up, she took a breath."
Mr. Roslin, in excited words his colleagues at first couldn't understand on their radios, said he found a breathing child. He passed Aireana to a firefighter through the hole in the wall, then crawled into a bedroom.
Visibility was good about two feet off the floor. That's when he found Aireana's sister, Alayza, under a blanket. "[She] was lifeless," Mr. Roslin said.
He and other firefighters at the two-alarm blaze, which remains under investigation, didn't think the elementary-school girls were going to survive.
"Their eyes were dusty gray," said fire Lt. Ken Kantura, who rode with the sisters in a life squad to St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center. "I thought there was no way they were going to live."
But on Monday, when Alayza turned 6, they learned otherwise. The girls were hop-scotching in a hallway at Toledo Hospital, where they had been transferred for treatment in the facility's high-pressure oxygen unit - known as a hyperbaric chamber - because of the smoke inhalation they had suffered.
The sisters, who were released that day, appeared fine aside from some burns on various parts of their bodies, such as forehead, hand, and leg.
"It's incredible. It really is," the lieutenant said. "I've been on since 1985. I've never seen a rescue where we breached a wall, got two kids out, and they lived on top of it."
The firefighters, who have responded to numerous fires in the building, aren't the only ones amazed by the outcome.
So is Ms. Miller.
"They knew what to do. Without the thinking of these firemen, my babies would be dead. I feel like I owe them my life," the 26-year-old mother said.
Ms. Miller said she was sleeping when she was awakened by her daughters' screaming. She saw fire, gathered the girls and her 4-year-old son, Ryan, and broke out a bedroom window.
She said she climbed onto a small porch roof and brought her son outside. She turned to get the girls, but they were gone.
"They were scared and ran," the mother said as she sat inside her sister's North Toledo home, where the family is staying.
Ms. Miller said she called her daughters' names, but they didn't come. Conditions were too bad. She jumped off the roof.
"I had no choice," she said.
Ms. Miller didn't see the firefighters carrying her daughters out of the burning building. And she didn't see Mr. Roslin being helped outside by his colleagues. Exhausted, he plopped down in a snow bank. He thought about the girls.
"I'd rather not have to go through that. It usually doesn't turn out this way," he said.
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