Groping through thick smoke in the bedroom of a Roxbury apartment, firefighter Andrew Lee's hand found a tiny, limp body on the floor next to the bed.
"It was the same size and weight as my [19-month-old] son," Lee recalled later. "I thought, 'The little guy ain't making it,' so I just ran with him."
Lee dashed down two flights of stairs and handed the child to a neighbor.
The 11-month-old child and two siblings, ages 4 and 6, who were also rescued by Lee, were home alone in their fourth-floor apartment at 60 Cheney St. late yesterday afternoon when the blaze broke out, according to Boston Fire Chief Charles Mitchell.
They were taken to Boston Medical Center, where they were treated for smoke inhalation and injures that were not life-threatening. Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said the fire was caused by children playing with matches.
Late last night, workers from the Department of Social Services interviewed the children and their parents at Boston Medical Center , according to department spokeswoman Denise Monteiro. She said the department has had dealings with the family, whom she would not name.
Several people in the building called the Fire Department after smelling smoke yesterday about 4:30 p.m., MacDonald said
Susan Ponds, who lives next door to the three children, said she was in the shower when her son began banging on the bathroom door.
"He was yelling that there was a fire," she said as she stood shivering in her housecoat outside the apartment building.
As she left her unit, she recounted, a neighbor shouted that children were in the burning apartment and Ponds said she could hear them screaming.
As she called the Fire Department, her husband, Ernest, and her son, Glenroy Niles, began kicking the door.
Thick black smoke was filling the hallway, Susan Ponds said, and "You couldn't see anything."
As the door broke down, firefighters arrived.
Lee, 33, a former Marine who did three tours of duty in Iraq and has been a firefighter for three months, said his crew was returning to the station after a nearby medical call when they received reports of the fire.
People outside the building told the firefighters children were in the burning apartment when they arrived.
Lee raced up the four flights, put his mask on, and entered the apartment on his hands and knees.
"You couldn't see anything, but we could hear screaming," he recalled later, in an interview in his Grove Hall fire station. "At first, it seemed like there were kids everywhere."
"All I was thinking was, 'Get the kids out,' " he said.
After pulling out the two older children and handing them to other firefighters -- "It was a chain of guys and we just handed them off" -- Lee kept searching.
He found the youngest child on the floor in the bedroom.
He said he was relieved to see the child getting placed in ambulance and knowing that the youngster would be OK.
The fire, which was mostly contained to the apartment's kitchen, caused about $50,000 in damage , officials said.
Lee was raised in South Boston and still lives there with his wife, Erin, and their 3-year-old daughter and son. They are expecting their third child in about a week.
Lee is the grandson of the late Andrew Canning, a decorated Boston firefighter, and he said his brother is also a firefighter.
During Lee's 11 years with the Marine Corps, he served three tours of duty in Iraq. He left the Marines as a captain in July, and joined the Fire Department in August. He attended the academy and completed his training by mid-November.
Last night, he downplayed his role in the rescue.
"There are 1,599 other guys who would have done what I did," he said, of the 1,600-member department. "I just happen to be that guy. It could have been anyone."
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.