A sheriff's deputy and maintenance worker are being hailed as heroes after they risked their lives to rescue dozens of people from a fire Friday at an apartment complex in Northern Virginia.
Loudoun County Sheriff's Deputy Abdul Rasooli was on routine patrol when he looked in his rearview mirror and saw a column of smoke rising. He followed it to the Chase Heritage Apartments in Sterling.
“The building was fully engulfed. The third floor, and it was spreading fast,” he said.
Apartment maintenance man Carlos Zapata smelled smoke. He knew children lived behind many of the apartment doors.
“I was thinking as a dad, not as an employee at that point,” he said.
The two men jumped into action with an immediate but unspoken rescue plan.
“We looked at each other and just knew exactly what we had to do. He took one part, I took one part, and we just made our way up,” Rasooli said. "I just started on the first floor, I started banging on every single door as hard as I can."
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Some people were still asleep and unaware of the danger.
“I had to get to the ground several times because of the amount of smoke, and when the smoke would pass, I’d get back up and start banging on doors," Zapata said.
Other deputies and firefighters arrived to help. Once everyone was out, Rasooli and Zapata each were taken to a hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.
They reunited Thursday and were recognized by Sheriff Mike Chapman.
“Really honored to be here with our heroes of the day,” Chapman said.
About 20 families lost their homes in the fire, but officials said they are safe and are receiving assistance from the Red Cross.
“I believe anybody wearing this uniform that was in my position would have done the same thing. I was just lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” Rasooli said.
A discarded piece of paper a resident used to light a candle on a balcony caused the fire, officials said.