SAN LEANDRO — It was like something out of an old movie, but it really happened here Tuesday: A woman jumped from her burning second-story apartment and was caught by four strong neighbors holding a blanket.
"It's common seeing people helping others during a fire," Alameda County Fire Battalion Chief T.J. Welch said. "But I don't know the last time I ever saw someone jump into a blanket."
The woman, Ruby Francis, 61, survived the 18-foot drop but was taken to Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley as a precaution. She was later transported to another local hospital, but was apparently released Wednesday unscathed, fire officials and neighbors said.
The fire began shortly after 8:20 p.m., when a stovetop deep fryer malfunctioned in her apartment in the 180 block of Callan Avenue, near downtown, officials said. Francis's brother, who was not identified, apparently had left french fries cooking unattended, sparking the blaze, Alameda County Fire spokeswoman Aisha Knowles said.
The other occupants of the apartment and building evacuated, but Francis, whom neighbors said is diabetic, was not able to leave with them.
She broke out a window at the back of the apartment and began screaming, Knowles said. A neighbor, Mark Montoya, ran barefoot into his apartment, grabbed a blanket, and got the help of Mario Sanchez — a 16-year-old San Leandro High football player — and two others. They each held a corner of the blanket and the woman jumped, landing safely, Knowles said.
"Thinking back on it now, I was there barefoot, just in my jean shorts," Montoya said Wednesday, recalling the rescue. "I was just thinking, 'If something were to happen to one of my family members, I would hope someone else would do the same thing.' God just put us in the right spot at the right time."
Firefighters were on the scene within three minutes of the alarm, Knowles said. But they credited two other apartment residents, Lincoln Taukave and Tyari Washington, with using fire hoses on the three-story apartment building to try to knock down the fire before firefighters arrived.
After he got his wife and daughter out of the building, Washington said he and Taukave battled the fire on one side of the building, and tried to get to the trapped Francis in her apartment — unaware the other neighbors had come to her rescue on the other side.
Reflecting on the incident Wednesday morning, Washington said he was glad to know the neighbors were looking out for one another.
"I'm thankful that my family is still alive," he said. "We still have our home and nobody got hurt."
It took firefighters 20 minutes to extinguish the blaze.
The fire was confined to Francis's unit, but there was smoke and water damage to four other apartments estimated at $500,000, Knowles said.
Fifteen residents were displaced and, although the American Red Cross was notified, a majority found temporary housing with family and friends, Knowles said.
It was a scary encounter, Montoya said, and one that required quick wit and a bit of heroism. But he said he and the other rescuers shouldn't be the only ones credited.
If it wasn't for Francis, who with a fire raging behind her took a leap of faith and jumped out of the building, there wouldn't be any story to tell in the first place, he said.
"Without her there wouldn't have been nothing to talk about," he said. "All we did was assist her."