OSCEOLA, Wis. -- Heroic efforts by a woman and her neighbor saved two of the woman's three children in a mobile home fire early Thursday, but her 7-year-old son died in the blaze.
The cause of the fire that killed Andrew Long is under investigation, but it appears to have started in the middle of the home, where he was asleep in the top bunk bed.
Neighbor Clay Erickson, 21, said he was awakened by the sounds of exploding glass and loud crackling just after midnight in his home about 20 feet from the Long residence in the Robo Village Mobile Home Park.
He said he saw the three-bedroom mobile home was on fire, and he woke his fiancee, Michelle Johnson, 20, and sprinted outside into the 4-degree air as she called 911.
He gave the following account of what happened next:
Flames were shooting out the front door, so he ran toward screams for help and saw Alisha Long clutching her 2-year-old daughter, Aurora, inside a shattered window.
Long threw the baby to him and then disappeared back into the smoke and fire.
Erickson smashed out the rest of the window pane, took a breath and jumped through the window, grabbed a burnt and bleeding Alisha Long and guided her out through the window.
Safely outside, Long began screaming for her other two children. Erickson went back in and found a soot-covered Alexandria, 12, emerging from the smoke. He guided her out, which left only Andrew inside.
Erickson had never been in the Longs' home and did not know where the boy's bedroom was. Alisha Long yelled for her son to come to the window and yelled for Erickson to go to the other side of the home, near the middle, where the fire was strongest and where Andrew was sleeping.
Erickson went to the other side of the home but found the fire was too intense for him to go in a third time.
"I couldn't see in the smoke. Flames were coming from the windows, everything was hot, like a giant oven opened. I feel bad I hesitated. I shouldn't have. I should have just jumped in, just did it. I feel sick that I didn't."
The childrens' father, John Long Jr., arrived home from working the night shift 20 to 30 minutes after the fire started, as firefighters were putting out the blaze.
Erickson denied he did anything heroic. "Anyone would have done it."
Osceola Fire Chief Carl Rossi sees it differently.
"I know he is distraught that he couldn't save the boy, but he is a hero," Rossi said. "He made a valiant effort. He and the mother rescued two children. "Had be gone back in there he'd have become a victim too. It was an old trailer. The walls have paneling, not Sheetrock, so the fire spreads rapidly. He would have been overcome by smoke."
It was the first time in his 20 years with the department, Rossi said, that a private citizen has entered a burning building to save a life. He estimated six people have died in fires in the last 20 years in the St. Croix River community of 2,100 about 45 miles northeast of St. Paul.
About a minute after the 911 call was received from Michelle Johnson, Osceola police officer Mike Jarvey arrived at the scene, followed quickly by 19 Osceola Fire Department volunteers.
"It was engulfed in flames," said Jarvey. "The flames literally knocked me back."
The state fire marshal has been asked to assist in the investigation. All that remained of the trailer Thursday was the back master bedroom.
Alexandria and Aurora were treated in Osceola for minor injuries and released. Alisha Long was transferred to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, where she was in serious condition Thursday evening. She was being treated for burns and smoke inhalation.
The Long family moved to the mobile home park eight months ago, neighbors said. The Longs released a statement through Regions Hospital thanking family, friends and strangers for their generosity. "Andy's spirit lives on through the compassion of others," the statement said.
Andrew, a second-grader at Osceola Elementary School who was known as Andy, "had a big, toothy grin, loved to give hugs and was a peach of a kid," said his principal Peggy Weber. School counselors visited classrooms Thursday to meet with children at the K-2 school.