Honor students brave blaze, pull boy from smoke-filled house

Isaiah Palmer (left) and Michael Eugene, students at Motivation High School, were heroes during a fire in Southwest Philadelphia. As one man pulled out one neighbor, the teens ran in to get a child to safety.
Isaiah Palmer (left) and Michael Eugene, students at Motivation High School, were heroes during a fire in Southwest Philadelphia. As one man pulled out one neighbor, the teens ran in to get a child to safety. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 12, 2014

Two Southwest Philadelphia honor students had a pretty good excuse for being 40 minutes late for school Tuesday:

After two explosions and a fire in a neighbor's house, the pair of high school students broke a rear window, clambered over broken glass, raced up a smoke-filled staircase, pulled a sleeping boy out of bed, then hustled him out the rear door.

"They're both heroes," exclaimed Rennu Teli-Johnson, principal of Motivation High School on Baltimore Avenue. "But one of them still owes me his senior-project topic."

No one was injured in the fire on the 7100 block of Guyer Avenue, though the 17-year-old boys, senior Michael Eugene and junior Isaiah Palmer, were treated for smoke inhalation at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Teli-Johnson said.

Fire officials are still investigating the cause of the fire.

Eugene lives two doors from the two-story brick-and-stucco rowhouse where the blaze broke out. Palmer, who lives around the corner, met him before 6 a.m. so the two could take a trolley to Motivation, a magnet school for proficient and advanced students.

"We heard pop, pop - two explosions - and then a fire broke out," said Eugene, who's riding his straight-A senior year to a near-full scholarship to Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

He noticed all his neighbors were out on the street watching the fire except an older man and his grandson. Neither Eugene nor his neighbors knew the names of the man or the child, said to be about 4 years old.

Eugene told Palmer that he thought the two were still inside.

The two boys threw a bucket at the front window, but it didn't break. So they ran to the back and fired a piece of concrete through another window.

"It was just adrenaline," Eugene said.

Another neighbor, Damien Fuller, 26, a landscaper, somehow got into the house and was escorting the grandfather out. "I was just reacting," he said. "I was making sure everybody was cool."

In the smoke and chaos, Eugene said, he and Palmer ran upstairs, "threw slippers on the boy's feet, and walked him out."

Palmer said that after a few minutes inside the house, "I thought I'd get burned up."

The house where the fire started appeared gutted by the blaze Tuesday afternoon. Outside, the brick walls were charred, and the metal gutter on the porch looked as though it had been shredded, then twisted into a knot.

The house next door, where Eugene and Palmer ran in, sustained less damage, though the front porch was destroyed by the fire.

After the Motivation boys carried the child out of the house, they simply headed to school.

Meeting her tardy students in the building, Teli-Johnson sniffed and said, "You smell like you've been to a barbecue."

They explained what happened, and soon after, Palmer's mother, Nyree, drove to the school and took the boys to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Palmer had complained of a headache.

"They're fine," said Nyree Palmer, 39, who said she works for the federal government but declined to say in what capacity.

"I spoke with Michael's mother, and she had had some smoke in her," Palmer said. "I told her God was on our boys' sides today. It was a blessing that they helped this family, and no one was harmed.

"I'm proud of how heroic these boys are."

That was the sentiment at Motivation.

"It's like these boys flew in here today in capes," said Brett Oslon, the school's advanced-placement American history teacher, who has taught both Eugene and Palmer. "That's what heroes do."

Both Oslon and Teli-Johnson described the boys, who both played basketball for the school, as the kind of students teachers dream of: "Isaiah is humble, respectful, and eager to please," Oslon said.

"As for Michael, the one word that describes him is leader."

Oslon said both boys' families believe strongly in education.

Eugene said he plans to study criminology to become a policeman or lawyer. Palmer said he wants to attend IUP himself after he graduates next year, to study either engineering or culinary arts.

They have to be at the same college, Palmer said, "because we're like brothers."


alubrano@phillynews.com

215-854-4969

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