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Woman honored for heroism after dragging stranger out of burning home

Kortnie Balls stands with her dogs. | Courtesy photo
POCATELLO — Black smoke hung over Kortnie Balls’ head as she army crawled through the burning home. She held her jacket over her mouth and nose, trying to avoid breathing in more smoke then she already had.
This house, a mobile home in Pocatello, didn’t belong to her. She didn’t even know the layout.
Balls could hear explosions coming from the back of the trailer as she crawled through the house. Oxygen tanks were being consumed in the fire, adding to the flames.
She’d been told that what she was looking for was on a couch. She still doesn’t quite know how to explain it to herself, but something in her head told her to go the opposite way of where she’d been told to go.
As the home filled with smoke and more oxygen tanks blew up, Balls felt as though she knew where to go without knowing where to go. Adrenaline pumped through her veins, and she had tunnel vision. She doesn’t even remember what the rest of the house looked like. She was focused entirely on her goal.
And then she saw him, the reason why Balls ran into the burning building. In the hallway, a man was lying on the floor. His legs were badly burned.
‘I don’t want to be called a hero’
It’s been one year since the incident.
“I don’t want to be called a hero,” Balls said.
But shortly after the March 23, 2022, fire, she was approached by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission about receiving the Carnegie Medal.
“The (CHFC) awards the Carnegie Medal to individuals from throughout the United States and Canada who risk themselves to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others,” said Jewels Phraner, the communications director for CHFC. “The Carnegie Medal is considered North America’s highest civilian honor for heroism.”
CHFC entered a deliberation period where Balls was measured against 17 other candidates for the award. Recently, Balls got a call telling her that she’s been awarded the medal.
She said it was her understanding that the award would be mailed to her along with a letter of instruction. She believes that there will be a ceremony at some point, but she has to get the letter to learn more.
“I didn’t really believe that it was happening,” Balls said. On March 26 of this year, she received a voicemail informing her that she had won the medal, and she dropped her phone on the ground in disbelief before she’d finished reading the transcript.
Balls then picked up the phone again to make the call back.
From her time growing up in Inkom, she was used to the pace of life being slow. While she thinks it’s a beautiful place, she works in Pocatello, and that’s where her friends are.
“I was kind of running back and forth,” Balls said. She now lives in Pocatello, but in the spring of 2022 when she was 25 years old, she would go from Inkom to Pocatello for her job of two years as a FedEx driver.
But a little over a year ago, when Balls went to work, she didn’t expect to charge into a raging inferno to rescue a man she had never met.
“I was almost to work,” Balls said.
She was passing by a trailer park on the 6300 block of South Fifth Avenue, the same one that her best friend lives in, when she happened to look over and saw a man at the front door of one of the trailers. Something about it felt weird to her, and then she saw the back of the trailer.
“I just see flames blasting out of the back of it — like, a lot of flames,” Balls said.
She pulled over and parked far enough away from the trailer so fire trucks could park close by. She then took off toward the trailer.
Balls ran into Anthony Evans, the man she had seen on the front porch.
“Is there anyone inside?” Balls called out to Evans.
“Yeah, there was a guy in there,” Evans responded. He pointed toward the window that was on the front porch and said, “There’s a couch right here. He’s on the couch!”
Balls grabbed a chair from the front porch and hit the window until it broke so the smoke would flow out the window. Meanwhile, Evans got the door open, and a little dog ran out of the house.
Evans tried to retrieve the man several times, but the smoke had grown too thick for him to make it to him. Dark black smoke was pouring out of the open door and window.
That’s when Balls entered the burning house.
‘So fast but so slow’
As oxygen tanks blew up, and the fire consumed more of the house, Balls crawled on the floor to reach the 79-year-old man, Richard Sergi. As Balls neared him, she saw flames crawling on the ceiling toward them.
When Balls reached Sergi, she crouched and held her hand out to him.
“Give me your hand!” Balls called out. She only had to ask him once.
“I just pulled for my life and basically his life,” Balls said. She doesn’t know how long she was in that house, but she thinks she couldn’t have dragged him for longer than 30 to 45 seconds.
“It was so fast but so slow,” Balls said.
When Balls got to the front door, Sergi was still halfway out the door with his legs still inside.
Balls said that she remembers someone shouting, “Look out!”
“Flames were just everywhere. Like at that point, they were above us, and they were engulfing the house,” Balls said.
A man with a beard jumped onto the porch and grabbed Sergi’s hand while Balls grabbed his legs, and they got him out of the doorway onto the porch.
Three sheriff’s deputies ran up to them. They grabbed Sergi and pulled him the rest of the way off the porch as the oxygen tanks continued to explode.
Balls jumped off the porch, coughing and trying to regain her breath. She saw the deputies dragging Sergi away from burning house with his burned legs dragging across the ground. She lifted his legs off the ground to help carry him away from the fire.
Ryan O’Hearn, the Pocatello Fire chief, spoke to the bravery and dedication Balls showed on that day. His agency was there to provide EMS care for Sergi.
“I was very impressed just with her commitment to human life and her willingness to take risk to help somebody that she didn’t even know,” O’Hearn said.
Karen Aguilar, Pocatello Valley Volunteer Fire Department chief, said her crew was there “to control the fire from spreading to other trailers.”
Although Aguilar is glad that Balls went into the house to get Sergi out, she also sees would could have been.
“I’m glad that she went in and she got him out. But I also, at the back of my mind — this thought keeps coming forward that it could have been two bodies instead of one,” Aguilar said.
More than a year after the fire, the cause is still undetermined, according to the Idaho State Fire Marshal’s Office.
Once they had gotten Sergi away from the fire, he suddenly pulled Balls over to him to ask her a question.
“Can you get my inhaler?” Sergi asked. He had left his inhaler inside the burned house.
“Even though his house was completely gone, he just needed his inhaler,” Balls said. She thinks Sergi must have been in shock after what they had just experienced together.
“With his injuries and him being flopped around, he had to have just been so confused and so in shock,” she said.
That question was the only thing she ever heard Sergi say.
‘I was shaking so bad’
“That was pure adrenaline. It had to have been because he was so light to me,” Balls said.
The sheriff’s deputies who pulled Sergi away from the blaze, Lt. Jeremy Taysom, Hayden Klauser and Elrich Schaffner, were stunned Balls could drag Sergi by herself out of the house.
Once that adrenaline left her system, all of her emotions hit her at once. As the ambulance carrying Sergi pulled away, Balls fell to her knees.
“I was shaking so bad, and I looked at my hands, and I couldn’t take my eyes off (them),” Balls said.
Sergi’s skin was stuck to her hands.
One of the deputies noticed and gave Balls a wipe to clean them.
Because her truck was blocked in and she wanted to stick around just in case anyone else was inside, she went to her friend’s house.
When her friend opened the door, Balls fell to her knees again.
“I cried for a couple hours after that, and then I went back to see if anyone was still there, or if anyone had been in there and no one else was,” Balls said.
This made her feel a little better.
But she soon found out the status of Sergi’s condition, not from an official source but from a commenter on Facebook.
“One of the ladies was like, ‘Oh, he didn’t even make it,’” Balls said. “So, of course, I broke down again.”
RELATED | Authorities identify man killed in mobile home fire
As media reported on the event, Balls saw Facebook comments from people that said she was trying to take the spotlight.
Some said they “felt like I was trying to take all the recognition, and I wasn’t trying to give it to any of the other people that were there helping, which that’s not me,” Balls said. “Like, I didn’t ask for any of this.”
She said her actions were about saving Sergi, not receiving accolades, and it came naturally to her when she did it.
In the months afterward, Balls felt changed by what she experienced that day. There have been times when Balls returned to that trailer court to see her friend, and she thinks for a moment that she’ll have to do the same thing again.
“I’ll go there, and I’ll smell someone burning their fireplace, and I kind of panic a little bit, and I’ll look around for a fire,” Balls said.
She also said that when she heard things that sound like an explosion, it reminded her of how the oxygen tanks sounded when they were exploding in the house.
“For example, my friend had a bug zapper, and like every five minutes, it was zapping a bug, and it scared me,” Balls said. “I would scream and jump every time because of the explosions in that fire.”
But what was most difficult for Balls was that Sergi did not survive. For months, Balls struggled with his passing.
“He passed away, and I thought when I got him out that I did save him,” Balls said.
Despite this, Balls said that she would run into a fire again.
After this incident, Balls spoke with firefighters, who referred her to a counselor. This helped her to talk about what she experienced and how to process her emotions.
The firefighters reminded her that Sergi didn’t burn to death.
“Even though he didn’t make it, he didn’t suffer in the house like he would have,” they told her.
“It helped being able to talk to the firefighters and know that they go through that stuff all the time,” Balls said.
Now, after a year, Balls says that she’s doing well, but she still wishes Sergi survived. She doesn’t think that’s something that will ever go away.
“I drive past where his trailer was all the time, and it makes me sad,” Balls said. “I’ll always have a piece of him in my heart, I think.”
The post Woman honored for heroism after dragging stranger out of burning home appeared first on East Idaho News.

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