Ninety-year-old Catherine Ritchie was getting ready for bed at her house in Sapulpa, Okla., just as she had for the past 58 years, when she turned around to find her bed engulfed in three-foot-high flames.
After she failed to put out the blaze with blankets, she pressed the emergency call button she wore around her neck and tried to leave the room, but in the thick smoke, she couldn’t find the door.
It was about 9 p.m., and four teenage boys were leaving the house across the street in the Tulsa suburb for a trip to a convenience store when they noticed the smell of burning rubber, one of the teens, 16-year-old Dylan Wick, later told WTUL.
“The smoke was so bad, I couldn’t see to get out of my room,” Ritchie told the local ABC affiliate. “I felt along the wall, and I went into the closet instead of the door to get out of the room. I finally did get to the door.”
When they saw the smoke and flames, the boys, ages 14 to 17, snapped into action. According to a blog post by Missy Ritchie Nicholas, the ninth of Ritchie’s 10 children, while one teen went to call 911 and another went to a neighbor’s house for an ax, brothers Seth and Nick Byrd tried to force their way into the house.
The youngest in the group, 14-year-old Nick, managed to kick the back door in and was the first inside.
“I just kind of heard her,” Nick told KTUL. “I went to the right of the house and no one was there. I went to the left of the house, and I saw her in the hallway, so I just grabbed her.”
Nick and Seth, 16, rushed her out of the smoke-filled house, Wick told CNN.
“This young boy was right there,” Ritchie told WTUL. “He picked me up, and I said, ‘I can walk,’ and he said, ‘We’re getting out of here.’ ”
In her blog post, Nicholas thanked the four boys on behalf of Ritchie’s children and “42 very grateful grandchildren.
“Kids who are told about all the things they aren’t old enough to do saved the life of the most precious and beloved woman we know,” she wrote. “Thank you for your selfless acts of heroism and courage. Thank you for not allowing this to be the tragic end to our mother’s amazing life.”
One of those 42 grandchildren, Jennifer Sontag, told CNN that her grandmother still volunteers with the Salvation Army and the Boys and Girls Club, and until recently, did deliveries for Meals on Wheels.
Lynn Wick, Dylan’s mother, told CNN that her son’s aspiration to be a firefighter was strengthened on that May night. And Wyatt Hall, 17, said the experience had a profound impact on him.
“Ever since that night,” Wyatt told WTUL, “my life has just changed … for the better.”