Some folks spend their Friday nights hanging out with friends or watching a movie. Alex Van Zant spent a recent Friday pulling the Heath family from their burning Port St. Joe home.
Around 1 a.m. on Saturday morning, Van Zant drove by the Heath household on Madison Avenue and noticed smoke coming out through the front door. A friend of the family, he stopped his car to ensure that everything and everyone was okay.
As Van Zant approached the house he saw James Heath, Sr. run inside with the garden hose and knew that the family was in trouble. He headed toward the front door and called inside as smoke billowed out.
Betty Heath was just inside the door but the smoke was thick and she appeared turned around. Van Zant reached in and pulled her to safety.
After James, Sr. sprayed water on the fire, the flames spread further, igniting his hair and burning his arms. The Heath’s son, James, Jr. was also in the house and was awakened by the shouts of his parents.
He rushed into the kitchen and attempted to put the lid on a boiler but the flames were too high. Both men suffered second degree burns in the blaze.
After getting Betty to safety, Van Zant got down on his hands and knees and went further into the house to search for the other men.
“The smoke was thick,” said Van Zant. “I couldn’t see an inch in front of my face.”
After Van Zant had located James, Jr. and gotten him out of the house, Betty told him that her dog, Candy was still inside. Back on his hands and knees, Van Zant crawled to a bedroom and called the dog until she followed him outside.
By the time he went back in for James, Sr., the fire had been smothered but not before doing significant damage to the stove, countertops and walls.
“He saved us,” said James, Jr. “He’s a hero. No doubt about that.”
Port St. Joe Fire Chief John Ford responded to the 911 call that Betty placed and was on-scene several minutes after Alex had cleared the home.
“I didn’t think. I just reacted,” said Van Zant. “I wanted to get everyone out.”
James, Jr. said that he’d been working long hours at his job and was “dead tired.”
After the blaze was out, he went back into his bedroom and was shocked to see that the soot on his blankets had nearly reached where his head had been.
“We really are blessed,” he said. “Alex did a phenomenal job of helping us.”
James, Jr., owner of Dri-Brite Carpet and Upholstery Cleaners, also thanked members of the community who had since donated materials and volunteered their time to rebuild the house.
“That’s the good thing about being in a small community--everyone looks out for everyone,” said James, Jr. “Not many people would go into a burning house.”
According to Ford, the stove was left on and ignited a patch of grease, though the fire was contained to the stove and cabinet areas. Betty and James, Sr. were transported to the hospital and treated for burns.