Trapped on a balcony by smoke and flames, construction supervisor Curtis Reissig knew he had to take action to stay ahead of the blaze that was quickly consuming the Houston apartment complex he had helped build.
"The flames were getting closer and hotter. I knew I had to do something. So I swung down to the lower floor," he told The Associated Press.
Reissig's daring leap bought him enough time to let a fire truck ladder get close enough for him to then jump onto it. Fire Capt. Brad Hawthorne, who was perched near the end of the ladder, helped bring Reissig to safety. The dramatic escape was all captured on video.
Reissig, 56, suffered minor burns to his face and hand in Tuesday's fire, which destroyed the planned $50 million luxury apartment complex. There were no other reported injuries.
Reissig reunited with his rescuers on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday, and said his daring leap was “pretty much a survival instinct” and the “only option.”
He praised Hawthorne and firefighter Dwayne Wyble, who was responsible for moving the ladder away from the building before it collapsed.
“I was running away from the inferno trying to save myself,” Reissig said. “These guys run to and into infernos trying to save other people. I shouldn’t even be here. They deserve all the praise and accolades.”
The cause of the fire was still unknown, but witnesses said it might have been caused by workers who were welding on the roof.
Reissig, who works for JLB Partners, had been eating lunch at a trailer on the construction site around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday when someone reported a fire. He grabbed an extinguisher and went up to the roof, where he put out some of the flames. But strong winds quickly spread the fire across the roof, so Reissig made his way to the fifth floor.
"At that point I saw a lot of smoke. ... It started burning my eyes, my throat. I couldn't breathe," he told the AP.
Reissig found a window but couldn't open it. He said he thought he was going to die. But then he saw a door to one of the building's units and went onto its balcony.
"I thought, 'Ah, fresh air.' And then I look up and I see to my right all the flames on the building were that close. It was just amazing it had gone up that fast," he said.
Meanwhile, Karen Jones, who works in a nearby building, had come back to her fourth-floor office after picking up lunch when she found co-workers gathered at a window, watching the blaze. Jones, who captured Reissig's dramatic rescue on cellphone video, said when she and her co-workers saw Reissig come onto the balcony, they started to worry.
"We were terrified for him," Jones told the AP.
On the video, someone can be heard exclaiming, "Oh my God," when Reissig appeared on the balcony and the flames from the roof started to get closer to him.
Reissig said he saw a fire truck ladder coming his way but realized it wouldn't get to him before the flames reached him first. So he decided to drop down to the balcony below.
"In my mind I was ... going through all the scenarios. What can I do? How am I going to drop? How am I going to swing? And I wanted another swing. But I knew I didn't have time because it was so hot. I took one swing," Reissig said.
Jones and her co-workers can be heard on the video screaming as Reissig swung his body down to the edge of the balcony below.
"In that instant, my heart raced," Jones said. "It was totally surreal ... like watching a suspense thriller on television."
Also watching Reissig was Hawthorne, the firefighter on the ladder that was making its way to him.
Hawthorne had been checking out reports of workers on the roof when the ladder truck's driver spotted Reissig.
The fire had spread so fast that Reissig had no choice but to "Spiderman it down one landing," Hawthorne said.
"If he had stayed up there, he would have had third-degree burns," he said.
On the video, Hawthorne can be seen furiously signaling to someone down below to move the ladder down to Reissig.
The ladder wasn't able to fully reach Reissig as there was about a two-foot gap between the two. Hawthorne said the ladder couldn't be fully extended for fear of injuring other firefighters who were farther down it.
"I waved him on and he jumped over," Hawthorne told the AP.
On the video, Jones and her co-workers can be heard saying, "Oh thank Jesus. Thank you God" as Reissig was safely on the ladder.
But as the ladder started to be lowered down, a large section of a fifth-floor wall tumbled down, nearly hitting Reissig and Hawthorne.
"I was out of there just in time," Reissig said.
Reissig declined to call his own actions heroic.
"I'm just a guy who was caught in a bad situation, trying to escape," he said.