RUSKIN - Luigi Young peered through the thick, gray-black smoke filling his neighbor’s living room and saw a figure lying on the floor just inside the door.
Moments earlier on Tuesday morning, the 25-year-old firefighter with Tampa Fire Rescue had been napping in his room after a 24-hour shift when his mother and sister came running upstairs and woke him. Their neighbor’s house was on fire.
Now, just before 11 a.m., Young was inside the front door, crouching down beneath the smoke to reach his neighbor.
It was one of a few trips he would make back inside the burning building. He aimed to save the man’s dogs and house, too.
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Young didn’t always want to be a firefighter.
The 2010 Bloomingdale High School graduate was studying electrical engineering at the University of South Florida when he decided to take a summer off to enroll in the emergency medical technician program at Hillsborough Community College.
By then, he’d already participated in Tampa Fire Rescue’s Explorer program for teens and young adults interested in learning what it means to be a firefighter. He enrolled at HCC "just to see what it was about."
"I loved it so much I never went back" to USF, he said. He was hooked on what it felt like to use what he learned and help people.
He earned his firefighter certification in 2012 and took a job with Tampa Fire Rescue the following year. He has run into burning buildings to rescue people before. Six days before Christmas in 2014, he and a fellow on-duty firefighter pulled a man from a burning home in East Tampa. The man survived. About a year ago, Young transferred to Station 13 near Busch Gardens.
He started his 24-hour shift at 7:30 a.m. on Christmas morning. It was a busy day with lots of medical calls, so he was ready for a nap by the time he returned home on King Tom Place in the Belmont subdivision, where he lives with his parents and younger sister.
About 30 minutes after he crawled into bed, his mom and sister woke him up to report the fire. He went to his window and saw smoke billowing above the cream-colored, contemporary Florida-style home three doors down. He ran outside in the same gray t-shirt and navy blue pants he’d worn on his shift.
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Young has lived in the neighborhood with his family for about 10 years but hadn’t met Paul Gregory, the man who owned the burning home. He knew Gregory’s first name and that he lived alone with two Rottweilers. Records show Gregory, 51, bought the four-bedroom, two-bathroom home in 2009.
Neighbors standing outside told Young they’d seen Gregory run into the house but not come back out. Young stepped just inside the front door, then checked again with neighbors to make sure Gregory hadn’t re-emerged. When Young turned around again, he saw Gregory lying on the floor a few feet inside the door.
Crouching below the smoke, Young draped Gregory over his shoulders and sat him down just outside the front door. The man’s lips were caked with soot, his eyes were sunken and he was barely moving.
"He’d inhaled a lot of smoke," Young said. "He kept saying, ‘My dogs, save my dogs.’"
Young picked up Gregory and moved him farther away from the house, asked the neighbors to get him a garden house and while they searched for one, Young went back inside. The fire blocked his path to the rear of the house. Flames crackled over the kitchen counter and walls.
"It was moving. It was angry," Young said.
He went outside, grabbed the hose and went in again, trying to keep the fire from reaching the ceiling, but the feeble stream did little more than create smoke that began to fill in around his legs. He knew he had to get out.
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue crews arrived shortly afterward. In video clips shot by his sister Nadine, a reporter for the Suncoast News Network, Young spins a wrench on a fire hydrant in one clip and pumps the chest of a dog in another. Firefighters were able to pull both animals from the home but neither of them survived.
At that point, a neighbor directed Young to Gregory’s two parrots on the back porch. The larger parrot’s cage was too big to fit through the screen door, so Young pulled the bird from the cage, wrapped it in a jacket and, as it tried to bite him, carried it to a neighbor.
He went back and toted the smaller bird’s cage to a safe spot in the back yard. Paramedics rushed Gregory to Tampa General Hospital. Ellen Fiss, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said he remained in critical condition Wednesday.
Gregory’s mother, Donna Gregory of Redington Shores, declined an interview request but asked Fiss to share a statement with the Tampa Bay Times.
"My husband and family and I are so very grateful to the firefighter that saved our son’s life," Donna Gregory said. "I wouldn’t have him at all if it weren’t for him. I hope to be able to tell him in person one day."
She said her son will be "devastated" by the loss of his dogs, Princeton and Sophie, about 9 and 10, "but at least I have him."
Young said losing the dogs was tough, "especially because I love dogs." He praised Hillsborough County fire crews for keeping the flames from spreading to other homes.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, Hillsborough Fire Rescue said, and the house was a total loss.
Young finally opened his Christmas presents at about 11 p.m. Tuesday. He has heard the word "hero" more times than he can count, but he doesn’t think it’s an apt description.
"Any one of the 700 men and women I work with would have done the same thing," he said. "We’re there to help people, on duty or off duty. I just did what we need to do."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.