A Naperville man who entered a burning apartment building to try to put out the fire and help residents evacuate has been honored for his actions.
Juan Carlos Hernandez, 39, banged on doors of the building on the 100 block of Douglas Street after it caught fire about 11:30 p.m. March 20.
His wife spotted the fire in a building next to theirs, then Hernandez started alerting residents of both buildings to leave immediately. He even kicked in the door of the burning unit in hopes of putting out the flames, Naperville Fire Chief Mark Puknaitis said in honoring Hernandez on Tuesday night.
"He tried using the fire extinguisher, but the amount of smoke he was met with made it difficult for him to breathe," Puknaitis said.
Cariene Jones, a 39-year-old woman living in the unit where the fire began, was killed, but Puknaitis said Hernandez's actions helped prevent others from meeting that same fate.
"Although I don't advocate anyone re-entering a burning building," he said, "there was a judgment call that had to be made in this incident, which I feel led to the remainder of the residents of this building being brought to safety."
Hernandez said he told his 10-year-old daughter, Katia, to call 911 once he and his wife saw the fire, then he began knocking on all his neighbors' doors. He and his family used to live in the unit that caught fire as recently as two years ago, so he said he knows the buildings well.
Once he had alerted all his neighbors, Hernandez took a fire extinguisher and kicked open the door of the second-floor unit that caught fire. He said he wheezed as a rush of smoke escaped the room.
"When I opened the door is when I figured out it was a real danger," Hernandez said.
He said he couldn't tell if anyone was home in the burning unit because no one answered the door. Firefighters eventually found Jones unresponsive in a bedroom and attempts to revive her failed.
Hernandez said Jones' family members later thanked him for his efforts to rescue her and put out the fire, so he knew his efforts were appreciated even before receiving the Fire Chief's Award during Tuesday's city council meeting.
"Like I told my family, I'm sorry I put my life in danger. I know I'm the supporter of you guys, but my heart told me 'you've got to help people save lives,'" Hernandez said.
Hernandez, who has lived in Naperville for 19 years and works in a restaurant kitchen, said he has tried to be a good Samaritan in the past, twice stopping to see if he could help car accident victims in California and Idaho.
The fire department determined the fatal blaze began because of "unattended cooking." It caused $100,000 damage to the three-story apartment building and made two units temporarily uninhabitable.