'I don't feel like a hero' -- Maintenance worker saves elderly man from fire

Jessica Pierce

The fifth-floor apartment was filled with thick smoke, and the 95-year-old resident was lying on the floor, hurt and unable to move.

The smoke had come from a burning pot of food on the stove, and the man had fallen while rushing to the kitchen to turn off the burner. A smoke alarm was buzzing, and the smoke was spreading through the Spa Apartments at 11 E. Main St.

"It was bad, it was really bad," said Ovid Randall, manager of the senior apartment high-rise complex. "There were not a lot of flames, but there was an awful lot of thick smoke — so much, you could hardly breathe."

What happened next on that afternoon — Sept. 4 — still has residents and workers talking: Maintenance superintendent Eric Bengtson came to the rescue of the helpless man, rushing into the smoky apartment with a rag over his mouth and carrying him to safety as firefighters arrived.

But Bengtson has been shrugging off the attention.

"I don't feel like a hero," said the Phelps man. "I just kind of reacted."

The apartment's resident, John Ufholz, was cooking a pot of chicken on his gas stove and lost track of time. Bengtson was working in another part of the building when he got word the smoke alarm had gone off, and raced to Ufholz's apartment — No. 514.

"There was smoke in the hallway," he said.

Someone told him that Ufholz was inside the apartment, but those who tried to get inside were turned back by the smoke. Randall was one of them.

"I tried to go in, but I could not get past the door," Randall recalled. "The smoke was so thick and so bad. It just amazed me how he did it."

Bengtson said adrenaline kicked in, and he put a rag that he always has on hand over his mouth. He and building account manager Deanna Wilkes went inside.

"We get down low, I saw the gentleman laying there," Bengtson said. "He was still conscious. I asked if he was OK, and he said, 'yes.'"

Bengtson and Wilkes opened windows, and Bengtson checked over Ufholz, making sure he had no broken bones.

"I picked him up in a bear hug and carried him out," he said. "Within five to 10 minutes, the firemen were there."

Using special fans, firefighters cleared the building of smoke, and Ufholz was checked over for injuries by an ambulance crew.  He wasn't hurt badly and is back in his apartment.

"I don't know what would have happened to the guy if he had laid in there," Randall said. "If it had gotten any worse, who knows what would have happened."

Randall sent a letter to the building's 115-plus residents, informing them of the incident. In it, he called Bengtson a hero several times.

"It's nice to read and see," Bengtson said, "but I still don't think of myself as a hero."

Jessica Pierce can be reached at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 250, or at jpierce@mpnewspapers.com.