Brendon Birt made a wrong turn as he drove a friend home just before 2 a.m. in Red Oak, Iowa. The mistake ended up saving the lives of four siblings.
Given the early hour, “I just had to assume somebody was in there,” said Birt, who immediately pulled over, called 911 and darted out of his car toward the burning house. “I was throwing stuff at the house, hitting the windows, yelling — everything I could to try to get them out of the house.”
When no one emerged from the home within a few minutes of Birt knocking and screaming “fire,” he decided he would break down the back door — as the front was almost entirely engulfed in flames.
“I just knew how bad it was getting, and I really had no time to think,” said Birt, who lives in Red Oak. “I was going to do whatever I had to do.”
Just as he was getting ready to run to the back, two teenage girls and a younger boy sprinted out the front door, screaming and crying as they pushed past billows of smoke. They said Birt’s banging woke them up.
“It was a huge relief when I saw them running out,” Birt said, adding that his friend stayed by the car. “If they had waited one more minute, they probably wouldn’t have gotten out of there.”
The three tearful siblings who ran out of the house said their older brother was still inside. About a minute went by — which “felt like forever,” Birt said — before the brother came racing out as flames danced around him. Firetrucks pulled up at the same time.
Birt learned that the four children — Bryce, 22, Kindred, 17, Spirit, 14, and Christopher, 8 — were asleep at home when the blaze broke out. Their mother, Tender Lehman, was in Montana for a family emergency, while her husband, Chris Lehman — who is a boilermaker — was working in Muscatine, Iowa. Bryce was looking after his younger siblings.
“I can guarantee you if it had not been for Brendon,” Bryce said, “it would have been 10 times worse than it was.”
While the siblings all made it out physically unscathed, five of the family’s seven dogs perished in the blaze.
“My kids were very shaken up,” Tender said. “They lost their dogs. They were devastated.”
She and her husband were devastated, too.
Tender was asleep at her sister’s house in Ekalaka, Mont., when she got the frantic call.
“I was in shock,” she said. “I was a mess. I was just falling apart.”
Tender wanted to drive home right away, but “we were pretty hysterical, my sister wouldn’t let us leave,” she said, explaining that she settled down once she knew her kids were safe and had a place to stay, and her mother drove her back to Red Oak first thing the next morning.
Birt stayed with the Lehman siblings for nearly three hours after the fire, “hugging them and talking to them, and trying to make them feel better,” he said, adding that he waited until the kids were picked up by a family friend, the VanHooses, who took them in for the night.
It took Birt some time to digest what had transpired.
“Until you get in that position, you don’t realize how fast that house is going to go up in flames,” said Birt, who is a hip-hop and rap artist. “It was crazy.”
When he approached the fiery house that night, “I imagined it being my family in there,” Birt said. “There was no other way around it.”
The Lehmans feel indebted to Birt for his willingness to put himself in danger to save strangers, they said.
“I think it’s such an epidemic in this country, people pulling out their cellphones and recording tragedy instead of jumping in to help,” Tender said. “He pulled out his cellphone and he called 911. He knew that they didn’t have time to wait.”
She was stunned that he got as close as he did to the fire. The blaze was so hot it melted Bryce’s truck — which was parked 20 feet away.
“He is a special, special guy,” Tender said.
What she is most awed by is that Birt “is still rescuing my children,” she said, explaining that they continue to be in touch and talk about what happened that night. “They’re healing each other. They’re the only five people on the planet that know what that night felt like.”
Birt has checked in with the Lehmans every day and visited numerous times since the fire. He even took the youngest, Christopher, trick-or-treating on Halloween.
“He is so much a part of our lives,” Tender said.
The kids, they said, are filled with gratitude for their newfound friend and hero.
“I never knew taking the wrong turn was such a good thing,” Christopher said.
“I’m just thankful that he’s been with us every second that we’ve asked him to,” said his sister, Spirit.
“He actually did something and saved all of us,” Kindred added. “It was pretty unbelievable.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation, the Red Oak Fire Department told The Washington Post.
When the fire started, “we were under a wind advisory,” Tender said. “Someone could have simply flicked a cigarette,” and it might have sparked the blaze.
The family lost the entire contents of their home. The damage to the house is not covered by insurance, Tender said, because of an issue with the roof — which they had planned to fix.
“I did shop around for more insurance, but I just thought we had time,” said Tender, who is studying to become a nurse and works as a nursing assistant at Montgomery County Memorial Hospital.
Her mother, Windy Mojarez, started a GoFundMe page to help her daughter’s family get back on their feet. Family friends — the Ericksons — offered to let them stay in their camper for the past week, and the family just secured a rental home.
Tender said she is overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from her community and beyond. Most of all, though, she is grateful that her four children are still with her — which, she believes, is because of Birt.
“I told him, ‘You just gained another family.’ He’s going to be in all the Christmas cards,” she said. “He’s an incredible human.”
Birt said he is proud to be an honorary Lehman.
“They’re definitely family forever,” he said.