Boy escapes fire in last-ditch effort

Hospitalized youth critical; probe under way in blaze at home
Brett Norman

Rescuer Anthony Crawford saw it in the boy's eyes - Joseph Webster was about to give in to the flames.

The 9-year-old Brentwood Elementary student was trapped in a fiery bedroom just before midnight Monday and quickly was losing strength.

"You could just see him fighting it with his hands. You could tell the heat was getting in on him," said Crawford, 42, who helped with the rescue. "We just kept telling him not to give up, not to quit trying, because he was about to, you could tell."

The motivation worked.

Joseph made a last leap for the window. Crawford, along with a man he is unable to identify, succeeded in pulling the disoriented and burned boy free as flames began to engulf the overhang above them.

Joseph suffered burns to about 10 percent of his body, mainly a shoulder and his back, said Brent Volunteer Fire Department Chief Harold Poole, the first emergency official on the scene.

"If it hadn't been for (the neighbors), that kid would be dead. I have no doubt about it," Poole said.

The boy is the first person to be seriously injured since the cold snap began this fire season. With eight fire-related deaths in Escambia County so far this year, officials are hoping to prevent a repeat of 2001, when 13 people died - more than in any other county in the state.

Joseph was taken to the University of South Alabama Children's and Women's Hospital in Mobile, where he was listed in critical but stable condition Tuesday.

His mother, Sheilah Bell, was with her son and could not be reached for comment.

State Fire Marshal investigator Thomas Bosco said the fire was under investigation. He had yet to talk with all the individuals who were in the home when the fire broke out, but he said the blaze appeared to be accidental.

Firefighters quickly doused the flames after arriving, Poole said, but the home was a total loss.

Joseph's three siblings and mother escaped without injury, including his sister who was trapped briefly in the bedroom with him before she was pulled through the window.

After the rescue, neighbors offered blankets, sweat suits, shirts and shoes to the scantily clad and shaken family, Crawford said.

"What they had on, they had on," he said. "They got away with the most important thing, which is their lives. Everything else can be replaced."

Brentwood Elementary School Principal Janet Riddle said Joseph's classmates were worried about their friend. Two of Joseph's siblings, Jervuntez Webster and Yolandra Bell, also attend Brentwood.

Joseph's fourth-grade teacher, Dawn Sims, said Joseph has a bubbling personality, is respectful and is always smiling.

"All of her students are making get-well cards and taking pictures of the class to send to him," Riddle said. "They are also going to try to make a video where each of them gets to say something."

The faculty is taking up a collection to help the family, she said.

"We sent home a notice in the parents' newsletter (Tuesday) to ask them to keep the family in their thoughts over the holidays," Riddle said.

The American Red Cross of Northwest Florida will provide the family with shelter, food and clothing and is coordinating with the Mobile chapter to deliver the services, said spokeswoman Grace McCaffery.

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