SARATOGA SPRINGS — A Navy veteran kicked down the door of a burning home Thursday morning to find a man standing at the top of the stairs, looking around, his head immersed in a cloud of smoke.
“I tried to open the door, and it was locked,” said Damion Hedington, 24, of Virginia Beach.
He was with his girlfriend, visiting her grandparents at their Geyser Crest home on Tamarack Trail, when the fire broke out a few doors down at about 9:45 a.m.
“It wasn’t hot … so I just leaned back and I kicked it,” he said. “I kicked it once; it opened a little bit. I kicked it a second time, and it just kind of, like, flew open. A lot of smoke flew out.”
That’s when he saw the man standing at the top of the stairs, who was silent.
“He was just spinning in circles,” Hedington said. “I ran upstairs, grabbed the dog gate ... pulled it down. The guy then slowly eased out. I grabbed him by his hip — he didn’t have his clothes.”
After helping the middle-aged man down the stairs and out the front door, he said, the man broke his silence. He told Hedington his wife was still inside, along with eight dogs. (Initial reports included a varying number of dogs living in the home.)
“I was like, ‘Is your wife stuck on something? Because she’s not coming,’” he recalled, “and he was like, ‘She can’t walk — she has a broken leg.’”
Firefighters later found the woman deceased inside the home. Neither she nor her husband have been identified by authorities, who were still working to notify next of kin Thursday evening.
The woman died as a result of the injuries she suffered in the fire, according to Saratoga Springs police Lt. Bob Jillson.
The man, who police said was 50 years old, was taken by ambulance to Saratoga Hospital and subsequently airlifted to Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, where he was listed in critical condition.
Jillson said he did not know the extent of the man's injuries, “however, smoke inhalation is of primary concern.”
Four dogs died in the fire. Four others got out alive and were taken to the Northway Animal Emergency Clinic in Moreau with “mostly minor injuries,” Jillson said. Two of the dogs were found in the backyard, one was found hiding under a car and the fourth was found wandering the area, by a neighbor.
“One of the four is in a little rough shape but doing OK so far,” Jillson said, citing some burns and possible respiratory issues.
City firefighters responded shortly before 10 a.m. to find flames coming from an upper portion of the house at 55 Tamarack Trail, Jillson said. Investigators believe that’s where the fire started — in the living room — located upstairs in the raised-ranch-style home.
“They were both down in one of the bedrooms (at the time of the fire),” Jillson said of the husband and wife.
By the time Jillson arrived at about 10:30 a.m., crews had extinguished the blaze and were putting out hot spots.
City police and arson investigators, as well as the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control, investigated and determined a preliminary cause, which Jillson said did not involve suspicious activity. He would not release details, however, until after an autopsy on the woman who died. That was scheduled for Friday.
Hedington said he was drinking coffee in the living room when his girlfriend’s grandfather, Jack Cornell, came inside from working on his truck and said neighbors were yelling about a fire. Cornell drove Hedington to the house, and Hedington saw a neighborhood woman and her son banging on the door, yelling, “Come outside.”
His Navy training kicked in when he got to the door of the burning home and found it locked, he said. He retired from the Navy after being struck by a car while riding his motorcycle, a crash that left him hospitalized for 20 months, he said.
“Suck it up and do it — that’s what they taught us,” he said. “If it sucks, you just do it. I was like, all right, I’m gonna just go ahead and try to do what I can.
“I just kicked the door down and tried.”
Hedington said he was glad he did, “because he was apparently lost in there.”
“If I had showed up two minutes [earlier], I probably could’ve saved two [lives],” he added.
He described going back into the burning home in an attempt to find the woman. He ran up the stairs but couldn’t see anything through the smoke, so he went back down the stairs and turned on his iPhone flashlight. Still nothing.
“I tried to get down, to lay down on the ground,” he said. “There was no way to see anything; there was absolutely nothing to be seen.”
When Hedington went back outside, the man told him again that his wife was in there, he said. They heard her making noises, “like gasping a little bit,” and the man went back inside.
“He laid down on the ground — I told him, if he’s going in, to stay low,” Hedington said. “I saw him wiggling, and I heard her gasping, and I heard a crash of glass. I don’t know what happened. Maybe she collapsed? Maybe a window busted.”
The man appeared to stop moving, so Hedington went back upstairs and grabbed his foot, then helped him scoot back down the stairs.
“He had a burn on top of his head; he was all covered in black. I don’t know, it was rough,” he said. “He could barely walk; he was looking around like he was confused. The smoke must’ve gotten to him a little bit. So I put his arm around me, I walked him to the side of the house, and I sat him down on the porch and put a towel over him, because he didn’t have any clothes on. We just sat there. And then the fire department flew up in there and I asked if I could help.”
The firefighters told him to back away from the scene.
“I did nothing but just watch,” he said. “There was nothing I could do.”