Reader's Digest

“Breathe for Her”

He was the last person who should have run into a burning building—he has lung disease. But that didn’t stop him.

- By claire nowak

At first, Michael Surrell didn’t see the black smoke or flames shooting from the windows of his neighbors’ home. He and his wife had just parked around the corner from their own house in Allentown, Pennsylvan­ia, when they got a call from one of his daughters: “The house next door is on fire!” He went to investigat­e. That’s when he saw two women and a girl hysterical on their porch.

“The baby’s in there!” one of the women cried. Though the fire department had been called, Surrell, then 64, instinctiv­ely ran inside. “The baby” was 8-year-old Tiara Roberts, the woman’s granddaugh­ter and a playmate of Surrell’s three youngest kids, then 8, 10, and 12. The other two on the porch were Tiara’s aunt and cousin.

Entering the burning house was like “running into a bucket of black paint,” Surrell says. The thick smoke caused him to stumble blindly around, burned his eyes, and made it impossible to breathe. The conditions would have been hazardous for anyone, but for Surrell, who has chronic obstructiv­e pulmonary disease, they were life-threatenin­g.

After a few minutes in the smokefille­d house, he retreated outside to catch his breath. “Where is Tiara?” he asked desperatel­y.

“The second floor,” her aunt shouted back.

Surrell knew he couldn’t hold his breath for long. So he uttered a little prayer: “Well, Lord, this is it. You gotta help me, because I’m not coming out without that little girl.” Taking a deep breath, he went in a second time.

The darkness was overwhelmi­ng. Yet because the house had a similar layout to his, he found the stairs and made it to the second floor. He turned to the right and was met by intense heat. He was already out of breath. “Baby girl, where are you?”

His throat and lungs burned as if he’d inhaled fire instead of the smoke and soot in the air. Every blink stung his eyes. All he could hear was the crackling and popping of burning wood. Then a soft but distinct moan emerged. Still unable to see, Surrell fell to his knees on the hot wood floor. He crawled toward the sound, feeling around for any sign of the girl. An ominous thought crossed his mind: I’m probably gonna die up here.

Finally he touched something. A shoe, then an ankle. He pulled Tiara toward him. Her body was limp and she wasn’t breathing. He scooped her into his arms and stood. He felt the heat of the flames on his cheeks. Turning, he fought through the smoke and ran blindly into the blackness. The next thing he knew, he was at the front door, then outside. Surrell put Tiara down on the porch. A voice told him, “You have to breathe for her.” He started Cpr—the first time he’d ever done so. The women stood behind him, praying silently. Soon a soot-filled cough came from Tiara’s throat. Surrell gave five more breaths. She coughed again. Her eyes flickered. He gave one final breath. She opened her eyes and took a breath on her own.

Their eyes met. Surrell hugged her tight and said, “Uncle’s got you.” Soon after, his throat closed off.

Surrell woke up in the hospital a couple of days later, having suffered severe burns to his windpipe and the upper portion of his lungs. He spent over a week in the hospital. Tiara was released from the hospital after a few days.

The fire exacerbate­d Surrell’s pulmonary condition, and he feels the effects even two years later. As a result, he takes extra medication that helps open his airways. “It’s a small price to pay,” he says. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t give it a second thought.”


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