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Two years ago, I met a superhero. He wore no cape, no mask, no tights. He never even told me his name. I hardly remember what he looked like, except for his eyes. I will never forget those eyes. Eyes that burned with so much intensity that you felt engulfed by them.
It had not rained for months and the temperature was well over 100 degrees. The conditions were perfect, the leaves were brittle and the grass was turning brown. Everyone knew that it was inevitable, but no matter how prepared people are, they are always caught off guard when disaster strikes.
The fire started hours before, by a poorly made campfire left unattended. The dry southern California winds blew it into the grass, and it spread as if the whole forest was wet with kerosene. There was no stopping it. Tree after tree, hill after hill, it grew. Helicopters dumped water and red dust as fast as they could, while teams of fire fighters attempted to keep it from spreading to the nearby homes. All of their efforts were in vain. Soon flames danced up and down the streets leaping from house to house, my home among them.
That night I was finishing grocery shopping and picking up some pizza for dinner when I heard the news on the radio. Adrenaline pumped through my body. Immediately I rushed home, going dangerously fast, swerving in and out of traffic and running stoplights. I thought nothing of the other cars or of getting pulled over. I needed to get home to my husband and children. I had to make sure they were safe.
Families and pets, ambulances and medical personnel, fire trucks and firemen clogged the streets surrounding the burning houses. People were being rushed out of the area. When I looked up and saw the inferno, I knew that there was no hope to save the neighborhood. Everyone else seemed to be thinking the same thing. People were being rushed out of the area by police. I jumped from my car, leaving it running. Pushing through the crowd I made my way to what used to be my home. The heat was unbearable and I could barely breathe the smoke filled air.
I caught a glimpse of my family through the smoke and people. My husband's soot covered face looked eerie in the yellow light. The flashing red and blue lights only added to the fear and pain of his expression. I rushed over and found them standing in front of the burning remains of our home. I thanked God for their safety, but something was wrong. Someone was missing. My husband's eyes met mine and confirmed all of my fears. Our youngest daughter was still inside the house. My heart stopped. My two other children hugged my husbands legs, my son's face was mildly burnt and both their cheeks were stained by tears and ash.
I began to scream. I screamed my daughter's name and for help. I had to get help. Someone had to save her. She couldn't die in there. I wouldn't let it happen.
Strong, dirty arms wrapped themselves around me. My husband held me to his chest and tried to calm me down. My attempts at breaking free were futile, and I began to swear at him. He repeated my name over and over again, telling me the worst thing he could ever say, that there was nothing that anyone could do, that the house was coming down any second and that there was not way to save our daughter. My screams turned to wails of agony and all I could do was cry.
Then as an officer tried to move us out of the way of the overwhelmed firemen, the unexpected happened. From somewhere in the crowd, a man burst out running toward the blaze. People shouted at him to come back, that he was crazy, that he was going to die. An officer and a paramedic tried to catch him before he could get through what was left of the front door, but they were too late. He disappeared into the burning building.
Hope and despair filled what felt like an eternity of waiting. Waiting for him to come out carrying my daughter, for everything to be alright. As every second passed I became more and more certain that he wasn't coming out. The hellfire grew and devoured our home, and with it, our daughter and a stranger. A stranger that probably had people who loved him. People that would feel the anguish that I was feeling right then. Watching the flames destroy my world, everything else faded. Tears streamed down my face, but I couldn't feel them. The sound of the destruction and chaos around me fell on deaf ears. I vaguely remember someone trying to push me away from the blaze and my husband stopping them, but nothing more, just the burning house.
When the structure of the building finally failed, so did any hope I had left of seeing my child again. Smoke, ash, fire, and rubble were thrown from the wreckage. Firemen were shouting that we had to move. My family and I were being pushed toward the nearest group of ambulances. My baby was gone, and so was the brave stranger. Turning I led my children to safety, despite how much I wanted to stay glued to that spot forever.
Then I heard a shout come from the piles of burning material, and then the small sound of a child coughing. I wheeled around, fresh tears welling up. I could see a shape trying to push what was left of a beam off of itself. Astounded firemen rushed to its aid and soon they pulled it out of the burning rubble. A badly burnt man and a small bundle were being carried to the waiting paramedics. Before they reached them I sprinted over and ripped the bundle from a fireman's arms. Inside was my daughter. She was coughing and crying, but not hurt. I held her in my arms, crying, until I was forced to give her to a paramedic.
It was then that I looked up and saw him. The man that saved my three year old daughter from burning to death. The man that risked his life to save someone he never met. Our eyes met only for a second before he was loaded onto a stretcher and carried off, but in that second I had seen every ounce of goodness that I believe to be left in this world. I never saw those eyes again. I never was able to even thank him. Though, I don't think I would have even know what to say if I could have spoken to him.
That day I met a true hero.