Vincent Fildes crawled out of the burning house on Sherman Street on his hands and knees, sick to his stomach from the acrid smoke and the unbearable heat.
But the Buffalo fire lieutenant went back in, his only protection a rubber coat and a metal helmet with cloth earflaps.
A boy and a girl were inside.
Forty-six years after the fire, Fildes can’t remember if he spotted little Patrick Weatherspoon in the smoke and fire or heard his cries. But something led the firefighter to the 4-year-old child.
Fildes scooped up the boy, staggered out of the house and handed him over to another firefighter. Fildes was afraid the boy was dead. Another firefighter plucked Patrick’s sister from the fire; she didn’t make it.
But the next day Fildes donned a surgical gown and stood over the little boy as he lay in an oxygen tent, a moment captured in a photograph in The Buffalo Evening News.
Patrick was severely burned but alive.
On a recent winter day at the Sweetness 7 Cafe on Grant Street, Fildes and the boy he saved were reunited for the first time since that day in the hospital. Weatherspoon expressed his gratitude quietly.
His wife and daughter, however, weren’t able to be quite so composed. They wept at the sight of the man who had made their family and future possible.
“I thank you a hundred times, a thousand times,” Weatherspoon’s daughter Lakeshia Weatherspoon, 32, said as her sons looked on. “You’re an angel.”
“I would just like to say thank you, thank you,” Annie Weatherspoon said, as her husband nodded. “I’ve had 20 great years with this good man, and many more years to come.”
Fildes, now 87, could appreciate the sentiment.
“I’ve had great years with my wife, 66 almost,” he said of Marge, mother of their eight children, who sat next to him at the reunion.
Saving lives comes with the job of being a firefighter, and rescues are not unusual. Some firefighters never come into contact with the person they saved. Others make a point of remaining in touch with the people whose lives they changed. But it’s extremely unusual for a firefighter and the person he rescued to meet again almost a half-century later.
Annie Weatherspoon longed for this day. Before she and her husband were married, she had heard about his narrow escape from the fire that claimed the life of his sister, Geneva, 6. After their wedding, she visited the Central Library to look up the newspaper microfilm from that day.
“The woman that was helping me find the articles said, ‘Those poor kids that passed away,’ ” Annie Weatherspoon recalled.
“I said, ‘Just one passed away. The little boy survived, and I’m married to him now. He was saved.’ ”
At the cafe reunion, the women listened avidly as Fildes and Weatherspoon discussed the events of March 6, 1968.
‘Couldn’t see anything’
His father was at work at Purdy Electrical Co., and his mother, Donna Weatherspoon, had gone next door to ask his aunt a question.
When the fire broke out, Patrick and his sister ran upstairs and hid, he said. After a few minutes, they crept back downstairs and saw flames as smoke filled the house.
“I held her hand, and we were running all through the house,” Weatherspoon said. “All we saw was smoke. We couldn’t see anything. I tripped on something, and I lost my sister’s hand. I don’t remember anything after that.”
Outside, Fildes arrived on a pumper. Donna Weatherspoon, who had already burned both hands in her attempt to rescue her children, was screaming for help.
“The fire had a good start; the whole front of the house was burning,” Fildes said. “I called in right away that we had a working fire in a home.”
Seconds counted, so the crew swung into action. Fildes took the nozzle of a firehose and entered the inferno. Although primitive breathing tanks and masks were supplied to firefighters in 1968, they were stored in suitcase-like boxes on the side of the pumper.
“For us to take it out of a case, it’s only a matter of a minute or two, but a minute or two makes all the difference,” Fildes said.
Fildes knew he didn’t have that kind of time. He crawled into the house with the nozzle and “opened up on the fire,” he said.
“The fire was coming out of the front door pretty good, so I hit the ceiling and I think I knocked most of it down.”
The News reported that when Capt. Carlton A. Dick of Engine 21 arrived on the scene, he saw Fildes crawling out of the house on his knees.
“He was sick, but he crawled back in because he knew there were children inside,” Dick was quoted as saying.
Fildes picked up the story at the reunion.
“I don’t know whether I heard you hollering, or I saw you,” Fildes said to Weatherspoon, who listened intently. “All I know is that I reached in and pulled you out. I did not see your sister at that point.
“I knew you were bad off, but I didn’t know how bad. This stuff moves along quickly. You only have a few minutes at the most to make decisions and do whatever has to be done.”
In the 1968 News story, Dick said Fildes “staggered out again with Patrick in his arms. Just as I took the boy, Vince collapsed.”
“I must have got a good snootful of smoke,” Fildes said. “I either tripped, or I don’t know what, but Carl Dick’s crew was right behind us, and he took the little guy and gave him mouth-to-mouth. The lieutenant from Ladder 6, Normie, he got the girl out, but it was too late. The guys that got her out, they took a beating.”
Boy was revived
Neither Patrick nor Geneva was breathing when Fildes and Lt. Norman Schlau from Ladder 6 brought them from the house. Firefighter Martin E. Steiger helped massage Patrick’s heart. The boy responded with a gurgling breath.
“I can’t tell you how I felt,” Dick told The News in that old newspaper clipping. “It was a wonderful feeling. I stood there and I said a few prayers. This is what makes my job worthwhile. We both feel like a million bucks.”
At the time of the rescue, Fildes said, “I thought he was dead. His body was so hot, it was steaming.”
Geneva was pronounced dead from smoke inhalation and burns; she was buried on what would have been her seventh birthday, March 9.
Two other children, Ernest Jr., 6, and Gloria Jean, 9, arrived home from school to the devastating news.
The next day, Fildes and Dick were told to report to Emergency Hospital – later known as Sheehan Hospital – where they were photographed wearing surgical gowns over their dress uniforms as they looked down at Patrick.
“When I woke up, I was in the hospital,” Weatherspoon said.
Scars from third-degree burns ran all the way down one of his legs. Weatherspoon said doctors recommended he have skin grafts. “But my mother said no. She said I’d been through enough,” he recalled.
Patrick spoke his first words days later when Dick and his daughter, Robbie, 13, visited him in the hospital and brought him a bright red child’s firefighter helmet.
The young boy called Dick his “soul father, because he breathed life back into me,” according to a later story in the Buffalo Courier-Express.
Dick stayed in touch with the family for years, sending cards and gifts on Christmas and Patrick’s birthday.
“He died not long ago,” Weatherspoon said. “When I was little, I wanted to be a firefighter because of Capt. Dick.”
Instead, he has worked in a factory, construction and on recycling trucks in the city.
After the fire, Fildes resumed his normal life.
“We had eight kids at home, and I was working two jobs,” he said. “You have to put some of this behind you. If you got emotionally involved with every situation, whether it was fires or squad work, it would overcome you. I didn’t need any thanks. It was thanks enough that I got somebody out of the place.”
Patrick Weatherspoon was the only person Fildes pulled from a fire during his 34-year career with the Buffalo Fire Department.
“You have to realize how many people have been rescued in this city and how many firemen have suffered injuries doing it,” he said. “But you go in, that’s what we were trained to do. We took a lot of heat and a lot of smoke to put out fires in places where we probably shouldn’t have been, but that was our job.”
For the Weatherspoon family, what Fildes and the other Buffalo firefighters did that day was far from just a job.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Annie Weatherspoon said. “I thank you, because if not for what you did, I wouldn’t have him in my life today. And I thank God you were there.”
“If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here,” said Lakeshia Weatherspoon.
Then she gestured toward her sons, Marcel Brown, 12, and Jaeden Bolden. Jaeden is 4, the same age as her father when Vincent Fildes plunged into a smoke-filled burning house to save him. “And neither would they.”