Catholic Vancouver Nov. 19, 2018

St. Mary’s student, 7, honoured for bravery in house fire  

By Agnieszka Ruck

R.J. Pena (second from left) with friends from St. Mary's school just before receiving an award from then-Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services Oct. 26. (Photos by Agnieszka Ruck)

It was one of the most dramatic moments in the life of St. Mary’s school Grade 3 student R.J. Pena.

He was at home, having lunch with his great-grandparents, when thick, black smoke started seeping into the room from downstairs.

“I just went to get the home phone, and I went downstairs,” recalls the seven-year-old. Seeing the smoke, he dialed 9-1-1 and told his great-grandparents to go outside. “My Lola, she went outside, but my Lolo couldn’t walk, so he stayed inside.”

Before first responders arrived, the home was already engulfed in flames. A neighbour, busy painting a fence two doors down, noticed the smoke.

“I ran to the front yard and I saw an older lady, and she was saying her husband was still inside,” recalled the neighbour, 20-something Landon Thatcher. He ran to the back of the home, climbed onto the balcony, and tried to get inside.

“The smoke was coming out really heavy. I took off my shirt, wrapped it on my head, entered the back and lay on the floor. I could hear a guy screaming, so I just followed the screaming and guided him out.”

Landon Thatcher, who rescued R.J.'s great-grandfather from a house fire, speaking to media.

For their bravery and quick thinking, Pena and Thatcher both received citizen commendation awards from the Vancouver Fire and Rescue service Oct. 26.

“In a lifetime, most of us will never be thrust into a pivotal moment like this, and we can only hope that when faced with it, we have the courage and strength to act selflessly and decisively,” said Vancouver Fire’s Jonathan Gormick.

Gormick said firefighters received multiple reports of a house fire and trapped occupants in East Vancouver June 23.

From the perspective of first responders, “those words over the radio are like an electric shock that put you into a response mode that can’t be explained,” he said. “Firefighters, hearing those words, are ready to run through brick walls.”

But, he said, what saved the day from being a tragedy was Pena’s “clarity, calmness, and courage,” as well as Thatcher’s heroism and his ability to “locate a disoriented but alive occupant, guiding him to safety and no question saving his life.”

Pena is the youngest person to ever receive this award from Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

R.J. Pena with past Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Vancouver Fire's Jonathan Gormick.

“I’m at a loss for words,” said Pena’s mother, Abigail. “It’s amazing how he was able to react how he did during the fire. I have no idea how I would react. I would probably panic.”

She said Pena had learned to recite their home address from a young age and his teachers at St. Mary’s taught him how to react in case of an emergency. “I’m very proud.”

Thatcher also received his award humbly.

“It was just natural instinct. I heard someone’s cry for help and knew I had to help,” he told media after receiving his award.

He’d never been in contact with the neighbours two doors down before, but has since become a family friend. “They are so grateful and happy I was there to help.”

Pena and Thatcher were among nine people recognized at Vancouver City Hall Oct. 26. The others, also considered “exemplary citizens,” by then-Mayor Gregor Robertson, were honoured for their efforts in the community.

They were longtime homeless outreach workers Molly Coldwell and John Norton; Downtown Eastside resident and local park volunteer Robert Dumas; advocate for cystic fibrosis sufferers Luca Piccolo; young advocate and fundraiser for Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation Claire Fox; community and healthcare advocate Jasmine Prasad; and young advocate for B.C. Children’s Hospital with brittle bone disease Faris Abdulwahab.

“It’s very hard to imagine how any of us would react in these situations, whether it is in an acute, dangerous situation … (or) day in and day out, serving the community and giving back and taking care of others, a relentless effort that requires just as much bravery and intensity but stretched over a longer period of time,” said Robertson.

“To the most courageous among us: thank you so much.”

Students, teachers, and the mayor (at the time) celebrate with R.J. Pena (centre).