Claudia Jimenez heard strange noises early in the morning on May 18, so she raced out of bed and into her living room.
Jimenez slammed the door and quickly grabbed her two young daughters, hustling them into her bedroom. It was just after 4 a.m., she said.
“I opened the bedroom window and started screaming, ‘Please, someone! I hope you can hear me — we need help!’” she recalled. “It was completely dark and there was nobody around. I realized that to save my daughters, I’d have to throw them out [the window].”
She was on the second floor, about 15 feet off the ground. She was holding tight to her daughters, Natalie Yanez-Jimenez, 8, and Valerie Yanez-Jimenez, 16 months, as she continued to shout for help.
“I was just about to throw them down when I saw this man coming toward us from the other side of the fence,” Jimenez said. “I yelled, ‘There’s a fire in the front and we can’t get out! Can you catch my daughters?’ He immediately jumped over the fence.”
The stranger’s name was Joe Hollins and he appeared to be in his mid-20s, she said. Jimenez later learned he was homeless and had been camping out with his wife next to a canal behind the apartment complex when he heard her cries for help.
“He said, ‘Hurry! Throw your kids down to me and I’ll catch them,’” Jimenez said. “I was terrified of them getting hurt and told him, ‘Please don’t drop them!’”
Hollins arms were up in the air, ready for them, she said.
First, she leaned out the window and dropped her baby, Valerie, into his arms. Hollins caught Valerie, as he promised he would.
Natalie was clinging to Coco, one of the family’s two puppies, so she next lowered Natalie and the dog as far as she was able, then let go. Hollins caught them, too.
Jimenez then held out the other puppy, Chloe, and Hollins assured her he’d catch her. He safely grabbed the dog as Jimenez held her over the railing and released her.
But when it was Jimenez’s turn to jump, she said she froze in fear.
“I was so afraid of jumping and I told him I couldn’t do it,” she said. “He kept telling me, ‘You have to! Come on, I’ve got you.’”
In those chaotic seconds, Jimenez also heard Natalie screaming and crying for her to jump. She looked at Hollins, and realized she had to do it. She quickly lowered herself down the outside of the window and let go of the ledge, she said.
She fell right into his arms.
“Joe caught me, and then I fell on top of him,” Jimenez said. “I got a little scraped up, but was otherwise fine.”
In her moment of terror, she had one overwhelming feeling. She almost couldn’t believe what had just happened.
“I was so thankful to him,” she said. “He saved our lives.”
She said Hollins helped her and her girls to the front of the eight-unit building, where they found other residents waiting for firefighters to show up. Everyone escaped without injuries.
“We heard sirens coming and I could see that the entire front of my apartment and the bottom apartment was in flames,” she said.
Firefighters put out the blaze, but Jimenez’s unit and three others were in ruins from the fire, smoke and water, she said.
“We lost everything, but I’m so thankful to have my girls,” said Jimenez, noting that she cares for four of her children on her own while her husband is living and working in Mexico. Two of her older two children were sleeping at their grandparents’ house that night, and a fifth child, an adult, is living on her own.
Several of her relatives hurried over to help, she said, and her family is now staying with her sister in Phoenix until they can find another place to live.
“Before we went to my sister’s house early that morning, I looked around for Joe, but he was gone,” she said. “He was my family’s guardian angel and I wanted to thank him.”
Fox 10 Phoenix ran a story about the fire and interviewed Hollins, who modestly said he was simply in the right place at the right time.
“The lady was screaming and crying [and] I told her to hand me the babies down,” he told the news station. “She was like, ‘Don’t drop them.’ She handed me one at a time, I safely put them down. I told her to come on down. She jumped down.”
“There was a lot of smoke,” Hollins added. “It was dark, but other than that, anyone could have done it.”
Phoenix Fire Department spokesman Todd Keller said officials are still investigating how the fire started. Nobody at the department was aware of Hollins helping Jimenez and her children until they saw the story on the local news, he said.
“We have no information on how to contact him,” Keller said. “We have 7,500 homeless people in Arizona, so if he’s homeless, it would be tough for us to find him.”
Jimenez said her family had lived in the apartment for about a week and a half when the fire broke out. Her brother, Matthew Jimenez, helped her start a GoFundMe to replace furniture, clothing and other belongings, she said. About $8,000 has been donated so far.
Jimenez said she hopes to do something for Hollins, who easily could have ignored her pleas for help in the darkness. She said she searched for several days along the long fence that divides her neighborhood and the canal, and she finally spotted him Tuesday afternoon, five days after the fire.
“I got pretty emotional when I thanked him for what he did,” she said, noting that Phoenix has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the nation.
“He’s definitely a hero, and I told him I wanted to help him in some way,” Jimenez said.
Hollins doesn’t have a phone, she said, but she told him she would go looking for him again this weekend after she gathers some supplies for him.
“I’d like to get him a tent and some clothes and some food,” she said. “It’s the least I can do. Even though I lost everything in the fire, I still have my family because of Joe.”