Bystanders save lives

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) - A serious fire broke out early Friday morning, engulfing an apartment complex on Cherry Street - trapping people inside and prompting at least six rescues.

While no one was transported to the hospital, eight people are now displaced but the situation could have been much worse if not for the early morning heroics of a pair of bystanders who jumped into action before the fire department even arrived.

Gene Wittkowske and Jim McLendon, employees of Collins Siding, saw the fire and called 911. Before firefighters arrived Mclendon and Wittkowske were already in the act of rescuing a woman from a second floor apartment.

"It was quite an exciting morning," Wittkowske said. "She was an elderly lady and we had to get her up and over the deck railing, get her on a chair, climb on my back and then bring her down safely."

The Rapid City Fire Department had three stations responding, but none of them could get there before the Collins Siding employees, the business located just across the street from the apartment.

"The fire had a significant head start on us," said Lt. Jim Bussell with the Rapid City Fire Department. "Quite literally they fireman carried her down the ladder prior to our arrival."

Once fire teams arrived, they used ladders to facilitate more rescues. One of them utilized a technique they practiced last week during a training exercise.

"The occupant of the apartment was able to lie, face-down, on the ladder and was pulled from the burning building by firefighters," Bussell said in a press release.

Once everyone was rescued, Wittkowske and McLendon opened up their facilities to the victims until the Red Cross could take over.

"A lot of them didn't even have shoes or jackets on. All their possessions were in the building," Wittkowske said. "So we opened up our facility. Made sure they had warm coffee, tea, donuts and space to relax and then the other professionals could take it from there."

While the fire department praised Wittkowske and McLendon's action, the pair downplayed their heroics.

"We did, I think, what anybody would have done," Wittkowske said. "I think it's just human nature of Jim and myself that we would have reacted the way we reacted. It could have been our mother."