Turlock residents Colby Browning and Kaze Villarial don’t consider themselves heroes. They consider themselves fortunate — fortunate in that they were in the right place at the right time to save a man’s life.
The two men are responsible for rescuing 91-year-old Robert Brown from his burning home Tuesday afternoon, but are hesitant to bear the mantle of heroes
“We just saw someone needing help and we reacted,” Browning said.
Their dramatic rescue began shortly after 4 p.m. Tuesday when, while driving down Colorado Avenue, they noticed smoke billowing up into the air.
“I knew something had to be on fire because no one uses their fireplace in this heat,” Browning said.
As they drove past Tornell Avenue they could see smoke and flames rising above the rooftop of a home and at that point no fire trucks were present. Without giving it a second thought the men raced over to the fire.
“There were a bunch of neighbors standing around and they were saying they thought someone might be in there, but no one could open the locked gate,” Browning said. “I could see the wheelchair ramp in the front yard and knew someone could be trapped in there, so we just jumped over the fence and ran around to the back.”
In the backyard Browning and Villarial peered through the glass door and could see an elderly man in a wheelchair.
“Luckily he saw us and wheeled over and unlocked the door because I was getting ready to kick it in,” Browning said.
“We told him his house was on fire and we had to get him out of there now and he just kind of looked at us surprised like and said ‘It is?,’” Villarial recounted.
Browning and Villarial got Brown out of the home and a safe distance away from the flames. Then they asked if anyone else was inside the home.
“He was kind of confused if there was someone else in there, so we ran back in,” Browning said.
By this point the smoke in the home was thick and black and the two men had to crouch down to make their way through the three-bedroom home.
“We checked every room, under the beds, everywhere, “Villarial said. “If there was another person, a dog, some other pet, even a goldfish, we were going to get it out of there.”
The men estimate they spent about four to five minutes searching the home before they were satisfied it was empty and made their way back to the front door.
The electrical fire originated in the attic of the home, according to the Turlock Fire Department. It caused an estimated $100,000 in damage.
Browning suffered smoke inhalation from the ordeal and had to seek medical attention at Emanuel Medical Center immediately after leaving the scene, so he and Villarial never got the chance to speak with Brown. But in an emotional encounter the two men got to meet Brown’s daughter and other family members Thursday afternoon while being interviewed for this story.
“I am just thrilled to meet both of you,” a teary-eyed Darlene Cowart, Brown’s daughter, said to the two men. “You two saved the most valuable thing in our lives.”
Later the family took Browning and Villarial to the hotel where Brown is staying for a very happy meeting with the 91-year-old.
For Browning, being able to save someone’s father was an opportunity to pay it forward because his own father was saved by strangers just a few weeks prior. His father was seriously injured at the Carniceria La Rancherita store at 1160 W. Main Street on May 16 when a Freon tank exploded while he was working on the store’s refrigeration unit. The accident caused him to lose his arm just below his elbow.
Typically, Browning said it is usually his job to work with the Freon tanks, but on that particular day he was working at another site.
“I would just hook them up and then sit right there and look at my phone. I would have been sitting right on top of it when it went off,” Browning said. “At first my dad was asking why God would take his arm, but then he thought about it and said that if it would have been me working that day it probably would have taken my life.”
“God puts us in the right place at the right time,” Browning said. “On that day he put me at a different work site and because of that I could be here at this home to save another man.”