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Archive for Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Rescuer arrested after heroic actions

April 30, 2003

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— A man who rescued four children from a burning apartment said Tuesday that "in my heart I do feel like a hero" -- despite his arrest on a probation violation after authorities saw his exploits on television.

Kris Leija said in a jailhouse interview that he didn't hesitate to enter the apartment, though smoke burned his lungs and he could feel heat from the flames.

"I didn't even think about myself," said Leija, 22, who is on probation for a burglary charge. "I thought about the victims who lived there. I didn't care about what happened to me.

"I felt like God put me there for a reason."

Leija was passing the apartment complex on his bicycle early Sunday when he noticed the blaze. He braved the flames three times in rescuing the children, including one in a baby seat, ignoring paramedics who warned him not to put himself in danger.

Video footage showed Leija collapsing on his hands and knees from apparent exhaustion afterward.

Later Sunday, a sheriff's deputy recognized Leija when he appeared on television with the children's grandmother. He was arrested Monday after doing several interviews with local and national media.

"A lot of people call me a hero but I don't really feel I'm a hero because of what I've been charged with and the way people are viewing me" as a criminal, Leija said. "But in my heart I do feel like I'm a hero."

Leija was arrested for allegedly violating probation in a burglary case for failing to meet with his probation officer last month. A bail hearing was set for today.

Authorities lauded Leija's exploits but said they were obligated to serve the arrest warrant anyway.

On Tuesday, Leija said that after he saw the fire he ran to the complex and began knocking on doors. A child answered one door and he removed three of the four children inside.

"It was already smoky and I could feel the heat already," he said. "My lungs were burning and I couldn't breathe at all."

He ran back inside, retrieving the infant in the car seat, then returned for the mother, who by that time had left the second-story apartment.

About 70 families were left homeless from the fire, which destroyed three buildings in an apartment complex. No one died in the blaze, but fire officials said one woman suffered a broken arm.

The fire's cause remained under investigation.

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