URBANA – Matt Ballinger said he'd never seen a fire move so quickly.
En route to a briefing for a police raid early on the morning of May 28, the five-year employee of the University of Illinois police department said he did a "double take" as he drove by the house at 814 W. Stoughton St. in Urbana, just two blocks from the UI police department.
"It looked like a giant porch light burst. It caught my eye," he said of the fire on the front porch of the two-story older home at the corner of Stoughton and Lincoln.
He grabbed his cell phone and called 9-1-1. Thinking he'd wait outside until firefighters arrived, Ballinger said he watched the fire spread across the front of the house in seconds. Firefighters believe smoking materials sparked a fire in a couch that was on the front porch.
"I knew I couldn't wait any longer," said the 35-year-old husband and father, adding he had no special equipment with him except his "SWAT Ninja clothes," and his service revolver.
He used a light on the gun to make his way through the smoke-filled home after forcing open a door on the east side.
He first encountered a man who had been sleeping in the living room of the boarding house and got him pointed to the door.
Seeing the way the house was constructed, he knew the fire would be sweeping up the stairwell quickly.
"I knew I had limited time," he said, so he bounded up the stairs, which take a 90-degree turn.
When he first entered, he said it was "eerily quiet." He could hear a smoke detector sounding but then remembers only the sound of his own yelling. He's not sure if the smoke detector got burned up or quit.
"I met a female on the second floor in a daze. Then I looked at the little door to the third floor. It looked like a death trap," he said of the narrow stairwell leading to the attic area.
Sarah Calcagno was sleeping up there.
"I got home from work and went to bed," said the 21-year-old tenant who's now staying with her parents in Champaign.
"The next thing I remember is him at the top of the stairs yelling and saying we needed to get out. He took all of us outside," she said.
Calcagno was one of several dozen people at a ceremony at the Urbana City Building Friday honoring civilians and police officers for extraordinary effort.
Ballinger was one of those hailed by Police Chief Mike Bily for his heroic actions last week.
Accompanied by her parents and an aunt, Calcagno presented Ballinger with a bouquet of roses and a tear-filled hug.
"Thanks isn't even enough for him. He saved my life. It's just pretty amazing somebody can do something like that," she said after the ceremony. "If it weren't for him, Ashley wouldn't be here."
Ashley Ames, 23, was the one person Ballinger was not able to find in the chaos that came with clearing the rooming house of the people who were sleeping on three floors, a fact that still haunts the former Army Ranger.
"I feel horrible I was unable to find Ashley. I was the last one out," he said.
Outside the home, the eight people who had been inside split into two groups, Ballinger said. No one said anything to him about anyone still being inside.
Calcagno said she mentioned to someone else that she didn't see Ashley or another of their roommates, but thought they might be at their boyfriends' homes. One of the women was. Ashley Ames was still inside.
"There's no way he should feel bad. He had no protection on him at all. If it weren't for him, Ashley wouldn't be here," she said.
Ames remained in critical condition Friday at the burn unit of Memorial Medical Center in Springfield. A waitress at Timpone's, Ames has no health insurance but Calcagno said the community has made generous donations of cash and clothing and benefits are being planned to raise money to help with her recovery.
All the residents lost all their belongings, Calcagno said.
Calcagno said she's been in touch with Ames' boyfriend, who reported Ames has had two or three surgeries in the past week, the most recent one being six hours long on Friday. Calcagno said her friend has second- and third-degree burns over 80 percent of her body.
As bad as her injuries are, Dilley said they could have been worse or fatal if not for the quick thinking of the first engine to arrive within two minutes of receiving the call.
"The first engine had a deck gun and saw flames in the (second-floor) room where Ashley was and put water in there, not knowing she was there. That probably saved her life," he said.
According to times kept at METCAD, the 9-1-1 call came at 4:23 a.m. The first firefighters arrived at 4:27. Firefighters had the fire out enough to enter the building at 4:33. Ames was found at 4:37 and removed 21 seconds later.
"Everything worked right," said Dilley.
Ballinger said he's been overwhelmed by the public attention, including a visit from the father of one of the survivors who came to the police station to thank him.
"We just do what we do," he said. "I wasn't looking for any recognition."