PLAINVIEW — Daniel Hanks splurged on his mother’s 82nd birthday present — a new refrigerator with special features.
Now, four years later, the Plainview resident is giving partial credit to that gift — as well as the heroics of a Plainview police officer — for keeping himself, his son, Joe, and his mother, Wanda Hanks, from perishing in a house fire in late August.
“That’s what blew and woke us up,” Daniel said of the refrigerator. “If that wouldn’t have blown, they’d have been carrying us out in body bags.”
The fire broke out sometime after Daniel fell asleep around 11 p.m. Friday, Aug. 23. Just before bed, he had gone into the kitchen to set up his hazelnut coffee for the morning. By 12:41 a.m. — when the Plainview Fire Department received a call for rescue — the house was in flames.
Daniel said he and his son, Joe, were able to make it to the front door, but his 86-year-old mother had fallen asleep, reclined in an electric lift chair, in a room at the back of the house. With the power out, she couldn’t return the chair to an upright position.
“I almost couldn’t get out of the chair,” Wanda said. “Thank God, I did.”
Wanda said her thoughts went immediately to her son and grandson. She said Daniel can be difficult to wake up, and she couldn’t hear him hollering for her.
“I got almost to the kitchen to go in, and it was just like a wall hit me,” Wanda said. “It wasn’t flame. It was just a black wall, and I couldn’t even breathe, and the heat ...”
That “black wall” kept Daniel from reaching his mother, as well. After coming back to the front door for a breath of air multiple times, Daniel was grabbed by his son and yanked out of the house.
“I went back in five times,” he said of his attempts to reach his mother. “The last time I was almost overcome.”
Wanda said she heard a voice tell her to go to the window, but the thick smoke kept her from seeing anything, so she felt her way until she could find it.
The bottom of the window was too far off the ground for her to climb out, but she intended to reach for a nearby ladder after sticking her head out for a breath of fresh air.
“I went to stick my head out and hit the screen,” Wanda Hanks said.
After knocking out the screen, she took in a good breath and then turned back in to get the ladder, but she could no longer find it, and she couldn’t catch her breath.
“All I could think of was my back was getting so hot. ... I felt like I was in an oven,” she said with tears welling in her eyes. “I didn’t know whether they got out or not.”
Wanda said she began hollering for help.
Officer Tyler Wells with the Plainview Police Department said he had been monitoring the paging system for fire and rescue and responded to the scene when the call came in. Upon arrival, he learned from Daniel and his son that Wanda was trapped in the back of the house.
Wells followed Wanda’s grandson around the house and over the fence. They found her hanging out the window, yelling for help.
The room in which she stood was mere feet away from the doorway where the active fire was visible. Wells said despite the heat, he reached in to lift her out of the house.
“It was hot,” said Wells, who was dressed in his officer’s uniform at the time of the incident.
Daniel considers the officer’s willingness to risk his life for his mother nothing less than heroic: “He didn’t hesitate. He just ran over there and thrust his hands in there. You could see the boiling heat coming out behind Momma. ... He was willing to risk burning himself to get Momma out. To me, that’s a hero.”
Wells diminishes his role in the incident: “I don’t know if I consider myself a hero. I was just doing my job.”
Daniel and his mother were both taken by medical helicopter from the scene of the fire to be treated for smoke-related injuries. They both have since been released and are staying at the home of Daniel’s former wife in Madison while his son stays with another relative, he said.
A spokesperson with the Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Office said the accidental fire was due to a clothes dryer.
“I was drying my son’s duffel bag — a heavy, canvas duffel bag, a pair of pants, two shirts and two towels. The heat of that set the lint off,” Daniel said before adding he didn’t know until now that dryers created a fire danger of that sort.
The fire left the home at 304 E. Woodland with severe damage, and several of the Hankses’ pets died as a result.
Daniel — who walks with a cane and is disabled — said the house was paid for but insurance had lapsed a few months earlier, so he’s uncertain of what the future will hold.
Right now, the son and his mother are simply grateful to be alive.
“The devil tried to kill us,” Daniel said. “I really believe that, but we live for somebody a whole lot more powerful than him.”