Location: Novato, California
Date: December 31, 1987
Around 2:30 in the morning on December 31, 1987, 34-year-old Felix Bannon was returning to his Novato, California home after a short trip to the corner store. Felix, who's been blind since birth, has always been independent. He shares his apartment with his guide dog, Valdez, and a lot of musical recording equipment. Playing and recording music is Felix's greatest joy in life and his apartment is a virtual mini recording studio.
Once inside, Felix turned on the space heater to warm his bedroom on this very cold night. Valdez lay down on the floor, and Felix got into his pajamas and called a friend. As Felix sat on his bed, and talked on the phone, he heard the heater shut off. Thinking this was strange, since the heater hadn't been on long enough to warm the room, Felix decided to investigate. He crouched down, reached under a table, and unplugged the heater. Then he heard a rush of fire inches away from his face.
Felix grabbed the phone and dialed 911. He reported the fire and his address to the dispatcher, then dropped the receiver. As the fire built to a roar, Felix ran outside with Valdez, with only one thought on his mind-his neighbors' safety. Most of the fourteen other tenants in the six-unit building were asleep, and Felix had to warn them to evacuate because the wood-shingle building they shared would go up in flames quickly. Wearing only his pajamas and socks in the subfreezing night air, Felix raced from door to door to alert his neighbors, some of whom he barely knew.
Felix was especially worried about two neighbors downstairs. One of them, Peter, had cerebral palsy and would have to be lifted out of bed and into his wheelchair by his attendant. The other, Fred, who lived directly below Felix, was a very, very heavy sleeper due to his medications. Felix was concerned the fire would burn through his own floor into Fred's apartment before he would be able to wake him. As Felix heard the windows exploding upstairs from the heat, he ran around the side of the building and yelled into Fred's bedroom window. He finally woke up and escaped unharmed.
Within three minutes of Felix's emergency call, the Novato Fire Department arrived and started to put out the blaze. Firefighters say that if they had arrived three minutes later, they might have lost half the building. Navato Fire Marshal Tom Elliott found Felix in a nearby apartment building, shaken and in need of oxygen to clear his lungs. Despite Felix's condition, Elliott remembers being struck that he repeatedly asked questions about his neighbors and never once asked about his belongings.
The investigation into the cause of the fire revealed that it started as a result of somebody else having spliced the heater's electrical cord. Felix lost all his possessions, but because of his quick response, nobody got hurt and only his apartment was seriously damaged. "The one thing I always remember from the fire," says Felix, "is that nobody got hurt, and that meant a lot more to me than the things I owned."
Since the fire, Felix's apartment had been rebuilt and he still lives there today. He's put his life back together, thanks to some help from a local music store that held a fundraiser to replace his instruments and recording equipment. "It makes you appreciate every day to have what you love and the people you love around," says Felix. "When people ask me how I did what I did, I tell him being blind wasn't a disadvantage. It wasn't an advantage, but it was just a matter of dealing with what had to be done. The costs could have been immense for lots of other people besides myself." In recognition of selfless courage, the California State Firemen's Association awarded Felix with a medal of valor, the first one bestowed upon a blind person.