It was late, nearly 10:15 p.m., when 18-year-old Cassandra Butzer spotted flames on her neighbor's front porch on Elmwood Park North in the City of Tonawanda as she headed home from a dance class.
Butzer stopped her car, ran onto the porch and pounded on the front door, alerting the 68-year-old homeowner, Dennis Alviti to the danger. Alviti escaped from his home without any injury.
On Wednesday, Butzer, a Tonawanda High School senior, was honored with the New York State Senate's highest civilian honor, the Liberty Medal, for helping to save Alviti's life on May 10.
State Sen. Christopher L. Jacobs, R-Buffalo, presented the award to Butzer at a ceremony at the high school that Alviti and his wife, Rita, also attended. He said the award was rare and is given in the case of an extraordinary act.
"I'm not sure anyone else would have stopped. I am forever in her debt," said Alviti.
Dennis Alviti said he was awake, but in his pajamas working on his computer. He said he didn't realize anything was going on until he got up to answer the insistent doorbell and saw the smoke billowing across the picture window that overlooked the front porch.
Rita Alviti wiped away tears as she was reminded how close her husband came to potentially losing his life. She was attending a grandchild's concert that night and said the fire trucks passed her as she drove home.
"I could have lost my husband," said Rita Alviti, reflecting back on that night. "Once I saw him there standing with the firemen I didn't care about the house anymore. He was alright, that's what counted."
Butzer, who will study dance at the University at Buffalo in the fall, remained modest, saying she "didn't think it was a big deal." But she said not stopping was not an option.
She said she was driving by slowly when she saw a plant on the Alviti's porch on fire and reversed her car to go back to the house. When she got out of the car she saw the fire was spreading quickly to the whole porch, she said, and as she rang the doorbell the smoke was in her face. She said she couldn't believe how fast it spread.
When Alviti came to the door, she told him he had to get out, that there was no time to get a fire extinguisher, Butzer said.
The cause of the fire may have been a bird's nest sitting on top of a porch light. Damage to the house was estimated at $20,000.
Butzer said she had never met the Alvitis before that night.
"But I'm really glad I did. It's been like a blessing. They are so nice," said Butzer.
She said she'd like to dance professionally for a time and then become a nurse, but maybe she will become a firefighter some day, Butzer told her parents, Cathleen and Gene Butzer.
"We are very proud of her. She was on her phone calling 911 while knocking on the door," said Cathleen Butzer. "I'm not surprised. This is something she would do."
The New York State Senate Liberty Medal was created in 2000. It is one of the highest civilian honors that a New York resident can receive, according to the Senate. It is awarded to individuals who have merited special commendation for exceptional, heroic, or humanitarian acts and achievements on behalf of their fellow New Yorkers.
Story topics: City of Tonawanda School District