As a teenager a decade ago at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan, Phillip Blanks was a star football player. Last week, his athletic instincts helped save a toddler from an apartment fire that killed the child’s mother.
Blanks, now 28 and a retired U.S. Marine, was at a friend’s apartment in Phoenix on Friday morning when he heard frantic screaming and a commotion. He immediately ran outside, barefoot, and saw the top floor of the apartment complex was ablaze and enveloped in smoke.
He looked up and saw a petrified woman on a third-floor balcony with a child. Flames quickly crept up behind her.
“People started yelling for the lady to throw her kids down,” Blanks said.
The mother dropped her son over the railing. As Blanks saw the small child falling, he dived forward, arms out.
“I immediately got tunnel vision of the baby and somehow managed to catch him,” Blanks said.
The wrenching video, captured on a cellphone, shows Blanks sprinting toward the 3-year-old child and diving to catch him mere milliseconds before the boy would have hit the ground.
Right after the child was safely in Blanks’s arms, he and neighbors wrapped the boy in a blanket and attempted to pacify him until the ambulance arrived a few minutes later.
Blanks said his time in the Marines, coupled with his athletic training as a wide receiver in high school and college, prepared him for this moment. The Marines taught him to “always be on high alert, not be complacent and to have discipline,” he said.
Blanks, who now works as a security guard, said protecting others is a natural instinct for him. In this case, it prevented a tragic situation from becoming even more horrific.
After the child’s mother — identified by local NBC affiliate 12NEWS as Rachel Long — 30, dropped her son from the balcony, she turned and went back into the burning apartment where her 8-year-old daughter was. Long never came out.
But word started to spread below that a child was in the apartment, and that’s when a second heroic rescue took place.
Another bystander ran inside the building and through the flames to save the 8-year-old.
D’Artagnan Alexander, 42, was on his way to a nearby plaza, where he works as a barber, when he heard screams and saw the flames.
“I have a 3-year-old and a 9-year-old, so when I heard there were kids in there, that really hit my heart,” said Alexander, who immediately parked his car and ran toward the blaze.
Without hesitating, he said, he entered the smoke-filled building and made his way to the third floor, which he described as scorching hot.
“I heard someone scream for help and I found the girl on the floor and carried her outside,” said Alexander, who managed to escape the building mostly unscathed, aside from a few minor burns.
“Everything happened so fast,” he said. “I didn’t have time to think, my body just kicked into action and I went in.”
More than 100 firefighters arrived at the scene, according to 12NEWS, to find eight apartment units engulfed in flames. The cause of the fire is being investigated by police, though there was no immediate sign of foul play, local news reported.
Once Alexander brought the girl to safety, he spotted her 3-year-old brother whom Blanks had saved a few minutes earlier. But “it was all a blur,” he said, and he didn’t know who had rescued the boy.
Blanks said he had a similar experience. At the scene, he heard about a man who saved the young girl, but amid the flurry of ambulances and paramedics, he wasn’t able to figure out who it was.
After the fact, the situation became both personal and emotional for Blanks, and he wanted to know who had saved the girl.
“I reached out to a reporter at a local Phoenix station,” Blanks said. “I wanted to find the man and thank him. He deserves more recognition than I do.”
“Phillip sent me a text and he thanked me for what I did,” said Alexander, who added he was in awe of what Blanks did.
Both men say they are forever bonded by this experience.
Alexander and Blanks have also been in contact with the children’s father, Corey Long, who they said was at work during the fire. Long declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post, saying he was not ready to talk.
The men visited with Long on Wednesday, and they said Long expressed extreme appreciation to them for rescuing his children.
“It was very emotional,” Blanks said. “We became family, all three of us.”
The men vowed to help Long in any way they can. His two children are in the hospital with serious injuries that are not life-threatening, Blanks said. A GoFundMe page has been set up for the family to help cover medical and other expenses.
“Saving this child changed my entire perspective,” Blanks said. “It made me realize how short life is, and how we need to protect each other and treat people better.”
“I couldn’t be more thankful that we both happened to be there,” echoed Alexander.
But beyond the two strangers who were able to rescue the siblings, it’s Rachel Long — the mother who saved her son but didn’t survive herself — who is “the real hero,” Blanks said.