This article originally appeared in The Daily News on March 30, 1995.
Police Officer Richard Grykin of the 26th District was driving north on 5th Street around 10 o'clock Monday night when he heard about the fire on the police radio.
Plainclothes officers Melvin Williams and Stanley Donald said they had a burning house at the corner of 5th and Cumberland. They said the second floor was engulfed in flames — and there were people trapped on the third floor.
Grykin sped the three blocks to the fire and saw what appeared to be a human tragedy in progress.
Officers Williams and Donald had been in the building and had almost been overcome by the heavy smoke in the second- and third-floor hallways. They had heard the screams of the family trapped inside the third-floor apartment.
“It was bad,” Grykin said yesterday. "I mean, real bad. The building was going up like a paper bag. I could see the mother and her four children standing by a window on the third floor. They were screaming out the window in Spanish. You could see the second-floor windows getting ready to burst. There was lots of smoke. There was no possible way for them to get out of there. "
The children’s mother, 23-year-old Wilma Garcia, reached out the window and released the building’s suspension fire ladder. It was narrow and unsteady.
Grykin is almost 6 feet tall, weighs around 195 and is built like a middle linebacker.
He remembers climbing toward the desperate family, thinking, "What’s holding this ladder up? "
When Grykin got to the third floor, he reached inside the window, grabbed Marta Cruz, 6, and hurried back down. The little girl was screaming in Spanish and squeezing him tightly around the neck.
“Hold on,” he kept telling her. "Just hold on. "
While Officer Williams steadied the ladder from below, Grykin carried Marta down and handed her to Officer Donald.
He quickly climbed back up toward the family, but just as he got to the second-floor window, it exploded.
Flames and smoke forced Grykin back down to the sidewalk, where a fire marshal told him, "You guys did a great job. But I have to tell you, that ladder is made for coming down, not going up. "
By then, firemen were rescuing the family through another window.
A fire lieutenant called the three cops heroes .
“You hear about it when a cop gets fired or a cop shoots somebody,” Grykin said. "But you don’t hear much about being heroes. Believe me, it felt good. "
Last night, a still-shaken Wilma Garcia told Daily News staff writer Marisol Bello it was a miracle that she and her children got out alive.
She had put them to bed and was listening to merengue music on the radio when she heard a loud crackling noise. She thought it was static. She lowered the volume on her radio. The crackling got louder.
When Garcia heard “something exploding” downstairs, she opened her apartment door and saw black smoke filling the hallway. She ran back inside and woke up her children, screaming, "Fire! Fire! Fire! "
She took them to a window on the apartment’s 5th Street side, where Officer Grykin found them.
After Grykin carried little Marta down the escape ladder, Garcia heard the second-floor window explode and saw flames and smoke pouring out of it.
“There was no way the rest of us could get out through that room,” Garcia said. "We were coughing a lot. The apartment was pitch black with smoke. My only thought was how was I going to get my kids out. "
She grabbed Emanuel Velazquez, 7, Kateria Cruz, 5 and William Cruz, 4, and ran to the kitchen window on the Cumberland Street side of the apartment, where everyone was rescued by firemen .
She said her kids are OK physically but are having nightmares about the fire - especially Emanuel, who is afraid that if he falls asleep, fire and smoke will overcome him at any moment.
“But at least we’re alive,” Garcia said. "For me, it’s a huge miracle. I’ve always had faith in God. He’s always been at my side. "
Apparently, the Big Guy is fond of cops and firemen, too.
Yesterday, sitting at his dining table while his 4-year-old son, Michael, played Nintendo upstairs and his year-old daughter, Nicole, toddled around the room chugging Kool-Aid, Officer Grykin was happy to learn that Wilma Garcia’s family is OK.
“The night of the fire,” he said, “I came home around midnight. I woke up the kids. I held them. I kissed them.”
Then he said: “I got two smoke detectors, right? Day after the fire, I went out and bought four more.”
Little Nicole toddled over, flashed her world class two-tooth smile, threw her arms around her father’s leg and hugged him hard.
Grykin remembered how hard Marta Cruz had hugged his neck while he carried her down the ladder, risking his own life to save hers.
I asked him how good that felt.
He said, "You have children, right? "