A 32-year-old Manteca man was hailed as a hero Thursday morning after saving a family of four from a $1.2 million apartment complex fire in the 400 block of Cherry Lane.
Mike Najera said he was walking along the railroad tracks toward Union Road when he spotted black smoke billowing into the sku. Smoke could be seen from miles away.
Najera scaled the 10-foot-high concrete block sound wall to find bystanders on the street watching the fire as he raced to pound on the doors of several apartments to alert residents.
Looking up he noticed two adults standing on a second floor balcony cut off from inside stairs by smoke and fire making it impossible for them to get to safety. Within seconds a young woman and a teen joined the two adults on the balcony.
Najera ran to a small patio directly below the balcony that was surrounded by a small four foot high wooden fence. He said he kicked down the fence and found a dresser on the patio. The dresser was the only thing he had available, he said, to help him reach the four people.
Najera said he told them to hang down from the banister with their hands and drop onto the dresser and that he would keep them from falling to the ground. An older man skinned up a knee in the process but all the others reached the ground safely.
When firefighters arrived on the scene, they were concerned about the possibility of anyone still being inside. They forced entry to the front apartment that was at the heart of the fire and cleared the building.
Resident Shawna Martinez said there were two cats “Pickles and Peanut” that had been left inside. Firefighters later found one of the 7-year-old cats that had somehow made it into the closet of another apartment – reportedly a little burned but basically OK.
Battalion Chief David Marques took the cat to Martinez and allowed her to hold him in his chief’s vehicle until animal control arrived to take the pet to a veterinarian. Marques said the cat offered no resistance when firefighters found him.
Martinez said she had lost her job in an AT&T layoff in July after 15 years with the company and hadn’t been able to find work since. She had moved into the apartment that had been rented by her son who left after finding a job in the Bay Area.
She insisted nothing electrical that had been left on in the apartment, no candles, or anything she felt that could have caused the fire.
Martinez said she was in the Bay Area all day Wednesday and came home about 9 p.m. to find she had no electricity. The woman said she called PG&E and was told the service would be restored between 20 minutes to a maximum of two hours.
When she awoke Thursday morning, she said there was still no electricity. She walked down Union Road to a shopping center to make a call to PG&E. Martinez said she was told her power would be expedited quickly by a remote control from the office.
Walking back up Union Road to her apartment she was surprised to see black smoke coming from Cherry Lane. As she got closer she realized the black smoke and fire she saw belching from the front of the complex was coming from her apartment.
One unit was reportedly completely destroyed and three other apartments were said to be uninhabitable due to smoke and water damage.
Ten people from four families were displaced by the fire and put up in the Best Western Motel on Yosemite Avenue by the Red Cross.
Marques said investigators were not able to determine a cause of the blaze. He added that it may not be determined due to the intensity of the fire.
Fire units from Manteca, Lathrop and Ripon responded with 28 firefighters.