June 27--Flames and smoke surrounded Tony Miles as the 56-year-old man screamed for help from a second-floor apartment where he and his 5-year-old son were trapped without a phone.
Dwayne Varner, next door in his second-floor apartment, heard the screams and stepped onto his upper porch to see black smoke billowing from the front windows of Miles' home at 18 Regina Place.
"Baby," he shouted to his girlfriend, "call 911."
Dwayne then raced downstairs and alerted his 58-year-old disabled father, Lewis Varner Jr., that their neighbor's home was on fire.
Moments later, just after 6 p.m. Thursday, the Varners propped up an old wooden ladder against the burning house, and Lewis climbed up to a second-floor rear window just as a double window, some 12 feet away, exploded. Though shaken, he continued climbing the ladder, urged on a by a crowd of neighbors, and ripped away the screen separating him from the boy.
But before Varner could get his arms around Tiraz Fisher, the child backed away.
"My daddy, my daddy," he said.
"I'm gonna get your daddy," Lewis Varner assured the special-needs child, coaxing him to within arm's reach.
The boy edged closer but hesitated at the last second.
"I don't have any clothes on," he said.
"I don't care, just come to me," Varner said.
Finally, he got his arms around the boy and stepped back down the ladder as other windows in the second-floor apartment blew out.
The boy's father did not make it out alive.
A day later in recalling the boy's rescue, Varner said he did not think he was a hero.
"If I was a real hero, Tony would be alive," Lewis Varner said.
Firefighters later found Miles in the bathroom, where he had turned the water on in the bathtub to try and protect himself from the swiftly moving blaze.
Miles appeared to be alive when he received first aid in his driveway, but was later pronounced dead at Erie County Medical Center.
Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr., neighbors and others all agreed Friday that Varner was a hero and should take heart in having saved a little boy.
"Even in the face of great danger, he didn't hesitate. He had presence of mind to get a ladder," Whitfield said in likening the disabled Varner to hardened firefighters. "Just like professional firefighters who come to work every day with aches and pains and injuries sustained over the course of their careers, he performed above his normal capabilities. We all do that when the adrenaline kicks in."
Shereese Miles, the sister of Tony Miles, says there is no question Varner is a hero.
"He saved my brother's baby," she said as tears ran down her face Friday. "He's been a good neighbor to my brother. Anytime Tony had to go to the hospital for his diabetes, Lew watched Tiraz."
Miles had been struggling and recently had a toe amputated because of his diabetes, the sister and neighbors said, suggesting that may have impaired him from getting to safety.
Dwayne Varner refused to take credit for the rescue, saying it was his father's fast thinking that saved the boy when they were unable to gain entry through a rear side door, below the window where the child stood on a stairway landing leading to the second-floor apartment.
"My father told me to get the ladder from the garage," Dwayne Varner said, after the boy refused their pleas that he jump out the window into their arms.
When Tiraz was safely out of the house, Lewis Varner asked the boy where his father was.
"In the bathroom," the child answered.
Lewis and Dwayne once again attempted to open the rear side door, but it refused to budge.
About this time, firefighters arrived, and it took three of them and a special tool to knock the door open.
Lewis Varner said he watched in awe as the firefighters fearlessly charged into the burning house to try and save Miles.
"When they brought him out, they were working on him and he was breathing, his eyes opened, and then they took him to the hospital," Dwayne Varner said. "We were told he was going to be all right."
About a half hour later, the fire commissioner arrived and spoke to the older Varner, both to thank him for his heroic actions and to break the sad news.
"I saw my dad put his hands on his head and I said, 'Dad, what's the matter?' He said, 'Tony didn't make it.'"
A day later, it was hard for the Varners to fathom that Tony, who often visited with them, was gone.
"I didn't sleep last night," Lewis Varner said. "All I could hear was Tony screaming."
But as Friday wore on, he found a way to make at least some sense of what had happened.
"My father died last March and I went over to his house on Wohlers and I saw his old wooden ladder in the garage and said this should be in my garage. You never know when you might need it. The ladder was a Godsend."
Copyright 2014 - The Buffalo News, N.Y.