BROOKLYN — A quick-thinking sixth-grader, stuck on a broken fire escape outside her burning home, made a desperate decision Thursday morning that saved her 3-year-old brother's life.
As smoke and heat belched from the building behind her, Janixia Soto, 11, dropped the toddler two floors into the arms of good Samaritans below.
The drama unfurled at 5.42 a.m. as a fire tore through a first floor grocery store at 83 E. 18th St., near Church Avenue, an FDNY spokesman said.
Ronnie Smith Jr., one of the men who caught the boy, Walter, said he looked frightened as he arced through the air.
"The baby's flapping, flapping. The baby's scared," said Smith, 32.
"You could see it in his eyes. I didn't want that baby to hit the ground. I had to catch that baby."
Firefighters arrived moments after Walter was caught and ushered everyone, including the Soto family, to safety, Smith said.
Janixia had woken up coughing and alerted her mom Michelle Soto, who awoke the rest of the family in their third floor home.
"All I could see was smoke. I couldn't see anything in the apartment," the mom said.
Soto told her children to get out onto the fire escape with their dog and climb down to safety while she ran back inside to retrieve her cat, she said.
But at the second floor, the ladder down was jammed, Soto said.
Smoke and what looked like charred paper billowed from the building while Janixia and others stood there shouting for help, Smith said.
"In that situation, you're not thinking of yourself," Smith said. "All I was thinking was, 'Drop him. Drop him.' Between four men, I knew we could catch him."
They caught Walter, but Smith said the other men who helped him disappeared in the fray. He didn't know who they were.
The 100 firefighters who raced to the scene brought the blaze under control about 7:10 a.m., the FDNY said.
The Red Cross said it would provide emergency housing for 15 people from five households in the building, a spokesman said.
Soto said she was grateful that everyone, including her son, was able to escape the fire uninjured.
"When I heard what happened I was shocked. But when I looked down and saw he was okay I thought that was the best," Soto said. "I'm not concerned about posessions or valuables. The most valuable things are our lives."