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The Boston Globe

Metro

Yvonne Abraham

Strangers rescued residents of burning Malden building

Essdras M Suarez/Globe staff

Kathy Delaney and Tommy Proctor rushed into a flaming three-decker in Malden Friday to warn the residents.

MALDEN - When Shakespeare wrote that some people have greatness thrust upon them, he could not have imagined that it might someday happen on a Malden side street, during an argument with a 13-year-old.

But there, on Friday morning, the mundane quickly yielded to the heroic.

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Her car idling outside the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, Kathy Delaney was trying to coax her already-late daughter into class. “I’m not getting out of the car,’’ the girl said.

The impasse broke when Delaney, 47, spotted the smoke - gray and wind-whipped, like a barbecue gone wrong, except nobody barbecues at 8 a.m. A three-decker across the street was on fire.

The physical therapist didn’t think about it. She ran toward the fire, leapt up the stairs at the back of the building. She saw flames above her, on the second-floor porch. She pounded on the white door, yelling. No one answered. She ran onto the street, shouted at a crossing guard: “Call 911!’’

That’s when Tommy Proctor, driving by after one of his regular coffees with buddies, spotted Delaney. “She was telling me, ‘You gotta help me,’ ’’ he said.

Proctor, 51, saw the look on Delaney’s face. She was going in.

“I’m not sure I was really thinking,’’ Delaney said. “If there was anybody in there, they have got to get out, like ‘The buck stops here.’ I was the one who saw it, I’ve got to do this.’’

Proctor followed her to the front of the building. They charged through the door - unlocked, mercifully. They pounded on the door to the first-floor apartment, and urged the two terrified, elderly women inside to get out.

Gaia Stecher, who lived on the second floor, heard the commotion and was annoyed. The 25-year-old waitress had just woken up, and was clearing the trash from the previous night’s takeout. Her roommate, a nurse who worked an overnight shift, was asleep on the couch. Stecher opened the door, preparing to yell at someone.

“There’s a fire, get out!’’ Delaney and Proctor told her. This was not what Stecher had been expecting. She woke her roommate, started downstairs, but went back for her purse. Delaney tried to stop her. “Your life is more important!’’ she kept yelling. Then Stecher needed her passport. When she went back a third time, for her computer, Stecher saw her kitchen window blow out.

“Oh, this is my cue,’’ Stecher said to herself.

Nobody had gone up to the dark landing on the third floor yet, where there was a young family, new to the building. Proctor saw that determined look on Delaney’s face again. “I knew she was gonna go up,’’ he said. He raced up the stairs before she could try. “I got up there, and I’ll never forget the look on their faces, the couple with the 3-year-old.’’

Eventually, everybody got out. Seventh-graders at the school had their faces pressed to the windows. The fire engines were on their way. But one of the elderly residents resting on the brick stoop was beside herself. She needed her inhaler.

“When I saw the fear on her face, I would do anything to help her,’’ Proctor said. He ran back into the first-floor apartment and found her medicine. Minutes later, flames raced through the old building, destroying the second and third floors. Minutes later, and people would have died.

“They definitely saved lives,’’ said Deputy Fire Chief Tom Walsh, whose investigators now believe the fire started with a smoldering cigarette on the second-floor porch. “Our guys got there pretty quick, but that fire spread fast. They’re very lucky.’’

Delaney and Proctor eventually went home. Over the following days they spoke on the phone a couple of times. They agreed to meet and tell their story back at the house on Salem Street Wednesday morning. As Proctor pulled up, grinning widely, Delaney said, “I recognize you!’’

This was the first time they had seen each other since the fire. They hugged for a long time.

“When I couldn’t find you afterwards, I started to think you were an angel,’’ Delaney said, laughing. “A figment of my imagination.’’

The charred house still smelled like smoke. A blue tarp covered the place where the third floor used to be. The back porches were completely gone. The two new friends described the morning, marveling at the damage, at the crazy risks they hadn’t thought about at the time, at each other’s bravery.

“I had my phone and I didn’t even think of calling 911,’’ Proctor said. “I thought of my family, and after that, I just followed her. She’s amazing! I’ve never met a braver woman in my life.’’

“I didn’t see any fear in your face,’’ Delaney laughed.

Just then, a red-haired woman in track pants and flip-flops came over, holding a cup of coffee out for Delaney: It was Stecher, who just happened to be passing by, and spotted her saviors. She handed the coffee to Delaney, who was moved.

“Oh, please,’’ Stecher said. “You saved my life. It’s the least I can do.’’

She gave Proctor a tight hug.

“Did you lose everything?’’ asked the heavy-equipment operator, who has a daughter about Stecher’s age. His eyes filled with tears.

“Most of it, but it’s OK,’’ Stecher said. “Things are things.’’

Stecher has been overwhelmed by the city’s support since the fire, she said. The deputy fire chief arranged a hotel for her. The woman who owns Aline’s cafe down the street refuses to take her money. Friends have agreed to put her up for a while.

“It’s so good to see you in good spirits,’’ Proctor said.

“I can’t be crying all day,’’ she said. Proctor gave her another hug. “Oh, you’re breaking my heart!’’

Stecher went back to her hotel, and Delaney and Proctor talked about their shakiness in the days since the fire. They’re proud of themselves, but more proud of each other. The two - firm friends now - will be honored by the mayor at noon Thursday, along with the crossing guards who also helped that day.

Still, even for heroes, life has a way of getting back to normal. For Delaney, that happened very quickly - as she returned to her car the morning of the fire. Her daughter was still sitting there.

“What do we do now, mom?’’ the girl asked her.

“You get your backpack and go to school,’’ Delaney told her.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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