TAMPA — He felt like his face was melting.
But Jesus Broche didn't hesitate as he tore through the apartment, kicking aside a flaming couch and scurrying to the third floor, where 5-year-old Roderick was crying for his mommy and 4-year-old Jeremiah was asleep.
Broche, who lives in a downstairs apartment, scooped up the boys, held their faces to his chest and ran through the smoke and down the stairs to safety, stepping on a nail along the way.
The 25-year-old neighbor saved those boys' lives, authorities said, after the Moon River Apartments unit off Hillsborough Avenue on North Boulevard was reduced to a charred hole.
"I still feel like I'd do it again, you know?" Broche said.
It was about midnight Sunday.
Broche was outside with his wife, Elizabeth, talking to one of her friends who had come by to visit. The Broches' two boys, Anthony, 6, and Austin, 4, were asleep in Elizabeth's mother's house across the parking lot from Broche's home.
Suddenly, Broche's upstairs neighbor, a single mother, was on her front balcony, screaming.
"Help! Fire!" 29-year-old Latrina Gillyard yelled. "My babies!"
She ran out holding her youngest, a baby girl, when Broche ran to her.
"Where's the boys?" he asked.
"Inside," she answered.
Broche's boys played with Gillyard's often, and he knew where their room was — on the wood-framed top floor.
Broche took a deep breath and ran inside, wearing only socks on his feet.
The heat hit him like a wall. Red and orange flames leapt from all over. The screen of the TV crackled and popped. Smoke filled every crevice.
Broche kept going. Halfway up the stairs, he finally took another breath. It tasted like dust.
When he got to the boys' dark room, he followed Roderick's cries, then felt around for Jeremiah. He hollered to them, trying to keep them awake as he headed back down toward the flames.
"It's okay, we're almost there, hang on," he told them as they cried.
Outside, the boys' mother and Broche's wife were watching, listening. They could hear Broche yelling to the boys and scampering about, but suddenly there was a boom! and it was quiet.
"Oh, my god," Elizabeth Broche said to herself. "Nobody's coming out."
Partway down the stairs, a hunk of drywall had fallen, hitting Broche on the back of the neck. "It almost brought me to my knees," he said.
The boys stopped crying, shocked. Broche said he started feeling light-headed.
Back in the burning living room, he threw himself to the ground, sliding across the wet entryway tile out the front door.
Elizabeth Broche saw her husband's blackened socks come through the smoke.
"I still feel like it's a dream," she said. "A nightmare."
A slew of fire trucks arrived moments later and had the blaze out in about a half hour. Paramedics checked out the boys and told Broche he should go to a hospital, but he didn't.
"Stubborn," said his wife.
A former National Guardsman, Broche said he had been trained for situations like this.
"I just knew what I had to do," he said.
Investigators haven't said what started the fire, but they said it does not appear suspicious.
Families in eight units were displaced, and the Red Cross was helping out. The Broches are staying with Elizabeth's mother across the way.
Photographs, electronics, clothes, food, everything in their unit was ruined. But that stuff doesn't matter, Broche said.
"If I would've waited for those fire trucks, man, it's sad to say they would've been gone," he said of Gillyard's boys.
From his mother-in-law's front porch, he could hear the TV. The news was on. Someone said something about a fire.
"Hey! They're talking about it," Broche said, peeking inside.
Gillyard was on the screen, her three kids fidgeting on her lap.
"I know he's going to be blessed," she said to the camera.
Times staff writer Ileana Morales and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Reach Kim Wilmath at email@example.com or 813-226-3337.