On a cool, crisp night in February 2000, Lamont Maxwell was startled by a sudden pounding on the door of his parents’ Akron home.
He peaked out of his window and saw one of his neighbors. “She was screaming, ‘Our house is on fire and my mom is still inside,’ ” he recalls.
Lamont looked over and saw it: The house was smoking, and the flames were growing quickly. He immediately called 9-1-1. “But you never know how long they will take to get there,” he says. “So I headed into the house.”
Maxwell sprinted to the house and tried to go through the front door. But with smoke billowing out, he ran back to his home and grabbed a metal chair to break out windows. “There wasn’t any thought in my head other than that I had to get her out,” he says.
While he thought that breaking the window would alleviate some of the smoke, it didn’t help at all.
“I still couldn’t see anything and I couldn’t breathe,” he recalls.
Still Maxwell didn’t give up. He dashed back to his house, soaked a bath towel with water, tied it around his mouth and nose and ran back into the house.
“I had been into the house before, so I kind of knew where to go,” he says. “But I could also hear Mary yelling, ‘I’m over here!’ ”
Thirty-three-years-old at the time, Maxwell had lived next to Mary Wade since he was in elementary school, except for four years he spent in the Navy.
Their families had gotten together for barbecues and on holidays. Her family attended pool parties at his parents home in the summer.
“I always looked up to her as one of my elders growing up,” he says. “So when I heard she was in trouble, I didn’t think about it as me risking my life, my first reaction was just to help.”
Upon entering Wade’s home, he still remembers the sound of the fire crackling and wood falling from the ceiling. Maxwell found his 73-year-old neighbor on the stairwell about 10 feet from the front door. He was able to get her to the door where neighbors helped him bring her outside.
Wade was hospitalized for smoke inhalation and burns, but Maxwell walked away unscathed.
“Once the ambulance and fire trucks left, I just walked back home,” he says. “One of the firefighters kept calling me a hero — he even offered me a job. But I told him, ‘I’m no hero, and I’m afraid of heights.’ ”
Maxwell never saw Wade again. The house was totally destroyed and the family had to relocate. “[Her daughter] Linda stopped by to thank me a while after,” he says. “And a lot of news stations reached out to me.”
A year later, Maxwell was awarded the Carnegie Medal for civilian heroism for rescuing Wade from her burning two-story home.
But he doesn’t think his acts were heroic. “I was proud when I got the news of the medal, but I’m no hero,” he says.
Now Maxwell travels the country as a truck driver. He hears stories similar to his where people weren’t so lucky. He feels thankful that even though the house was a total loss, he and Wade were able to get out alive — an ending he doesn’t hear very often.
“There are many definitions of what a hero is,” he says. “It can be an act of courage or how other people see you. It’s not a tag you put on yourself. That’s just what I had to do. And I’d do it again today.”