Sanford Harling III didn’t have to rush into the inferno.
With bright orange flames shooting from the windows of his family’s three-story brick home in Norristown, Pa., on Friday, the 12-year-old was safe outside. He had escaped through the back door with his mother and sister.
But in the chaos of the moment, “Man Man,” as Sanford was known to family and friends, charged back inside the house.
He was trying to save his father, who had recently undergone hip surgery and was trapped on the second floor, according to ABC affiliate WPVI. What Sanford didn’t realize, family members say, is that his dad had already escaped by jumping from a second-story window.
Firefighters attempted to save the boy, but were pushed back by the flames.
They eventually found Sanford’s body under the kitchen table.
“Not too many grown men would run back in after their family member, and he went back in without thinking about it,” Percy Jones, the president of Sanford’s youth football league, told WPVI.
“I know they had a very close relationship,” he added. “Every Sunday they went to church together. They always matched, head to toe. When I heard he went back in for his father, I didn’t expect anything less from him.”
By the time the blaze was extinguished, four relatives who lived in the home — Sanford’s parents and two of his siblings — were safe and accounted for. Three other siblings live away from home and weren’t at risk, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Sanford Harling Jr. was hospitalized after injuring his back and leg in the fall from the second-story window. He underwent surgery over the weekend, the Inquirer reported.
The family lost all of its belongings in the fire, according to WPVI.
But the loss of its youngest child dealt a devastating blow to the tight-knit group, Harling’s 23-year-old brother, Terrance Phillips, told the Inquirer.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Phillips, who escaped his third-floor bedroom by climbing onto the roof and making his way down on a tree. “It’s a lot of emotions right now.”
He added: “I know my little sister and my mom are going through the worst of it.”
Before his death, 12-year-old Sanford had been thinking ahead. He told relatives that he was considering two career paths: professional athlete or SWAT officer.
And yet, relatives recalled, he was very much a child at heart. His grandfather Kenneth Peterson, 62, described the seventh-grader as “happy-go-lucky, fun, a lovable, big teddy bear,” according to the Inquirer.
“Everybody loved him,” Peterson told the newspaper. “He was a great friend, great family member, he was a little boy. He was loved. He loved sports and video games.”
Norristown Councilman Hakim Jones, a former coach for Sanford’s football team, recalled the boy’s devotion to his teammates.
“He was always working to motivate his teammates,” Jones told the Inquirer. Sanford “was part of a really close-knit family who was very well-liked in the Norristown community.”
A GoFundMe page set up by the Norristown Youth Eagles to help the Harling family and “to give Sanford the proper burial that a hero deserves” had raised more than $31,000 as of Monday morning.
Phillips told the Inquirer that he noticed the smell of smoke from heating vent in his bedroom floor and suspects the cause of the fire was electrical.
The Norristown Fire Department said Friday that the fire was under investigation.
“It was a tragic day in Norristown as a young [boy] runs back into a burning home to find his father,” the statement said. “Little did he know his father was able to escape the flames from a second-floor window.
“Please remember to NEVER return to a burning building. Call 911 and let the firefighters handle the emergency with the proper equipment.”
Sanford’s current coach, Matt Booker, told The Washington Post that he’d watched the 12-year-old transform from a little boy into a self-aware young man, someone who was becoming increasingly aware of his responsibilities as a player and as a person.
Sanford played fullback and defensive tackle. He wasn’t the best athlete, his coach said, but he was “a big ball of energy” and one of the team’s hardest workers. His parents, Booker said, attended every practice and game, and their son could often be seen carrying the family’s chairs so they could sit and watch him play.
If his motivation ever waned, Booker said, he knew family was the key to motivating the dependable 12-year-old.
“I would point to the sideline and say, ‘Your dad is over here watching you,’ ” Booker told The Post. “Every time, that would just flip the switch for him and he would turn into somebody else and perform.”
When Booker first learned how his player had died, he was angry that the boy had been able to get back into the house.
As he has continued to ponder Sanford’s final moments, the frustration has lifted.
“I realized that I couldn’t see someone stopping him from getting back into that house to try and get his dad,” Booker told The Post. “I don’t even think I could’ve stopped him.”
Does he consider his young player a hero?
“The only one that I know,” Booker said.
“I can’t imagine a greater act of valor than how he performed that day.”