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MORENCI, Mich. - Perhaps the greatest sign of hope that emerged from a tragic, predawn house fire that killed two people here yesterday is that some people still value their neighbors enough to risk their lives for them.
Bobby Black is one such person. A 43-year-old employee of a plastics plant who makes a living with a job that pays $9.40 an hour, Mr. Black said he cannot afford medical insurance.
None of that figured into his decision to crawl on his hands and knees through the front doorway of a burning house on Pearl Street owned by Jeremy and Tina Rohr yesterday to save the couple's toddler, Ryan, who turns 2 next month.
"My mind just took over. It just said, 'Get that baby,' " Mr. Black said. "I was almost in a zone. I wasn't thinking."
Jeremy Rohr, 36, and Zachari Rohr, 12, perished in the blaze at 404 Pearl St., which was reported to the Morenci Fire Department at 3:43 a.m.
The fire was the second one in a little more than a year to claim a pair of lives in this modest town of 2,260 people at the southern edge of Michigan's Lenawee County.
The other occurred only a block away on May 24, 2008, when Jonathon Pike, 18, of Morenci, and Chelsey Sedlacek, 15, of Weston, Mich., died.
Morenci firefighters were not on the scene when Mr. Black rescued Ryan.
Every second counted.
Smoke and fire were so thick that visibility was limited to a few inches at ground level.
Mr. Black, who lives three houses away at 320 Pearl, said he awoke to screams and "saw nothing but the neighborhood glowing."
Mrs. Rohr and the couple's 8-year-old son, Austin, had escaped unharmed.
Her husband, their 12-year-old son, Zachari, and Ryan were trapped inside.
Mr. Rohr was on the floor near the front doorway, apparently having collapsed. Zachari was in another part of the house.
Mr. Black said he tried pulling Mr. Rohr out onto the porch, feet first, but lost his grip and fell backward.
That's when he saw the toddler squirming on the floor, gasping for breath 10 to 15 feet away.
He said he crawled over Mr. Rohr, scooped Ryan into his arms, flung him backward onto the porch, then crawled back out himself.
Mr. Black said he couldn't save Mr. Rohr. He said the man's body appeared to have been wedged against the front door, with a leg quivering.
"He may have been on his last breath," Mr. Black said. "I couldn't do nothing for Jeremy. That's what killed me."
The child's mother, Tina Rohr, 30, came running over and administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Ryan.
The toddler resumed breathing, then gasped again for breath as Mrs. Rohr, screaming and frantic, tried locating her husband and Zachari. Amanda Webb, 20, who lives at 320 Pearl with Mr. Black, said she provided the toddler a second round of CPR to get him breathing again.
Mrs. Rohr, Austin, and Ryan were examined at Fulton County Health Center in Wauseon. They were fine, except for a small burn on Ryan's head, according to Martin Sauter of Blissfield, a cousin of Mr. Rohr's.
Mr. Black was treated at the same hospital for burns on his back, arms, legs, and feet.
Mr. Black has known the Rohrs for years.
In addition to being neighbors for the past decade, Mr. Black and Mr. Rohr worked together at Palm Plastics Ltd., a manufacturer of molded plastic products. Mr. Rohr was a supervisor there.
Mr. Black and others described the Rohrs as a wonderful family. Their neighborhood is one in which kids often ride scooters and bikes, with mothers setting up playpens in their front yards for their infants.
Amanda Reef, who lives across from the Rohr house at 417 Pearl, said it makes her feel good to know someone in her neighborhood would be willing to put his life on the line for her kids.
She described the three Rohr children as "Daddy's boys."
Mr. Rohr was often outside playing with them, she said.
JoAnna Wright, who lives in another part of Morenci, said she believes Mr. Rohr died trying to get his other two children to safety.
"You tell me what parent wouldn't do that," she said.
Mr. Black's mother, Nancy Black, of 328 Pearl, said she's proud of her son.
"I was scared when I found out what he had done, but I thank God he was there to help," she said.
Several Pearl Street residents complained that the Morenci Fire Department, an all-volunteer unit, took too long to arrive.
Some claimed the response time was 45 minutes. They questioned other decisions, such as using a more distant fire hydrant than one across the street from the Rohr house.
Fire Chief Chad Schisler said volunteers assembled and arrived on the scene at 3:50 a.m., seven minutes after the department had received the call.
"I think the time was well within reason," he said.
Chief Schisler said a hydrant on a larger water main was tapped because of the enormity of the fire.
"With that type of involvement, my decision was to go with a larger main," he said.
Mr. Black said he was angry over the decision to attack the structure first.
He said he implored firefighters to use their protective gear and pull Mr. Rohr's body out, just in case there was any chance he was still alive.
"My guts are twisted up and knotted up just thinking about it," Mr. Black said.
Chief Schisler said the fire was raging so heavily it would have been too dangerous to send anyone inside.
"My men acted in the most professional manner. I'm just going to leave it at that," he said.
The department had 24 volunteers at the scene. It was assisted by firefighters from Fayette, Lyons, Wauseon, and Hudson.
The cause of the blaze has not been determined. The fire is being investigated by the state fire marshal's office, which is expected to have an investigator back on the scene today.
Chief Schisler, who has been in charge of the Morenci Fire Department for eight years, took issue with Mr. Black's assertions.
"Mr. Black saved the 2-year-old. I am grateful for his actions," he said. "I think these gentlemen [firefighters who fought the blaze] did an excellent job for what they were up against."
Bill Pierce, an employee of the same plastics plant that has employed Mr. Rohr and Mr. Black, said he stopped by to offer words of comfort to Mr. Black's family.
The Rohrs are staying with relatives in another part of town. Funeral arrangements for Jeremy and Zachari Rohr are being handled by Eagle Funeral Home in Morenci.
Mr. Pierce said his 11-year-old son, Wesley, lost friends in both fires.
He said his son could have died in the blaze that occurred last year. The boy was invited to be part of a sleepover at the house that burned, but didn't go.
"It brings a tear to my eye," Mr. Pierce said of the two fires. "It's just so sad."
Contact Tom Henry at:
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Perhaps the greatest sign of hope that emerged from a tragic, predawn house fire that killed two people here Wednesday is that some people still value their neighbors enough to risk their lives for them. Bobby Black is one such person. A 43-year-old employee of a plastics plant who makes a living with a job that pays $9.40 an hour, Mr. Black said he cannot afford medical insurance.