Firefighter Recalls Rescues of Three Children from Deadly MN House Fire

Jan. 14, 2024
St. Paul firefighter Jake Ryks said he found a child in a bedroom and carried them out, retraced his path to find a second child and found another child upon returning to the room.

In the early morning darkness of Jan. 3, St. Paul firefighter Jake Ryks had just broken through the front door of the burning house on Arkwright Street when more details came across his radio.

There was an open phone line in the house and it was believed there were people still inside.

Breaking standard protocol, which would have been to wait for another firefighter, Ryks knew the urgency of the situation and charged inside the home alone to search for victims.

Ryks’ story, and those of his colleagues, that were shared at a Saturday news conference painted a picture of the chaotic scene the night the fire broke out, trapping a mother and her six children.

Four of those children have since perished from their injuries. The mother and two of her children remain hospitalized in critical condition.

At Saturday’s news conference, Deputy Fire Chief Roy Mokosso said that the preliminary investigation into the cause of the blaze indicates it was started by an unattended candle.

It appears the family couldn’t get out of their Payne-Phalen home because the fire was by the front door and escaping out the back would have meant a drop from a second-story level, Mokosso said last week.

Ryks was one of 63 people, a combined force of firefighters and EMS workers, who came together on that night to put out the fire and rescue the family inside.

Visibility inside the home was next to none when Ryks raced in. The first room he entered was the living room, where he said he could feel “moderate” heat and see a “trickle of fire through the smoke” along the back wall.

He navigated his way to the closest bedroom and found a child, whom he scooped up and ran back to the front door, where he handed the child to a colleague. He then “retraced” his steps and found a second child near where he had found the first one. After handing that child off to a firefighter at the front door, he returned and found a third child in an upper bunk bed in the bedroom.

This time, when he went back to the front door, nobody was there to hand the third child to.

“The scene had become chaotic,” he said as his colleagues fought to put out the fire and save the lives of the first two children.

Carrying the third child in his arms, Ryks walked a block to where EMS workers were doing CPR on the other children.

Once there, he ripped off his mask and gloves and began CPR on the child he had carried until other EMS workers could take over. As he ran back to the house, he was told there was a second adult victim in the house.

In the meantime, other firefighters had rescued the mother and two other children.

Back at the house, Ryks searched but there were no more victims inside the home.

At Saturday’s news conference at St. Paul Fire Department headquarters, Fire Chief Butch Inks became visibly moved as he spoke of his pride in the people who responded that night and the difficulty of what they experienced, rescuing small children who had succumbed to smoke inhalation.

He said the first responders were shaken by what happened, and that he couldn’t be more proud of the 63 who responded to the blaze.

“I’m very protective of them,” he said. “I’m their chief. As chief, it’s my goal and my mission to help them understand that they did everything they could. They utilized all the training that they have been given, they worked together as a team from the first engine to the last paramedic working on folks, they did everything they could, but the outcome is not always what we think it’s going to be, and it’s my job to continue to work with them so they understand that.”

The response time of the engines was “incredible,” he said, noting that the first engine was there less than four minutes after the 911 call and that five engines were there within five minutes.

Eight ambulances were on scene. The first child arrived at the hospital nine minutes after the first engine arrived at the scene, according to St. Paul Fire Capt. Rob Watson.

When Dr. Alex Lacey of the Regions Hospital burn surgery department arrived at the hospital, resuscitation of the victims was still going on.

“It’s one thing to have one patient in (cardiac) arrest, but to have so many at once really requires a lot of coordination of care and a lot of teamwork,” she said at the news conference. “It was a huge team effort and everybody was there giving their all to the family.”

The last time there was a fire that caused multiple fatalities was in 2017 when a woman and a 2-year-old were killed and two other children were critically injured, Mokosso said.

“It is uncommon for us to have multiple fatalities from one fire. And to have four is incredibly tragic,” he said, noting that there are an average of two to three fire fatalities a year in St. Paul.

In 2023, the St. Paul Fire Department responded to 63,000 calls for service, including fire, rescue and medical services, said Assistant Chief Steve Sampson of the EMS division.

Capt. Mike Smith, president of St. Paul Firefighters IAFF Local 21, said the union is donating $10,000 to the Vang family.

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