MCCONNELL AIR FORCE BASE, Kan. --
When he smelled the smoke Staff Sgt. Thomas Carter, knew he had to act fast if he was going to save himself, and the eight other tenants of his apartment complex in Salina, Kansas.
On Jan. 5, Carter, a 931st Maintenance Squadron crew chief and traditional reservist, had barely been home from work for two hours when he heard a loud pop, followed by his fire alarm. What Carter didn’t know at the time was that his neighbors’ clothing had caught fire after being left near a furnace.
After determining that the cause of the alarm was not coming from his apartment, Carter smelled smoke and decided to open his door. He was immediately greeted with a cloud of smoke emanating from the door of his neighbors’ apartment.
In those short, hurried moments, he admitted the only thing on his mind was getting everyone out of the three-story building, particularly the five younger residents living in the other three apartments.
“There’s five kids that live in my building,” Carter said. “That was the main thing on my mind at the time."
The building, a large multi-story house converted into smaller apartments, included three other apartments in addition to Carter’s. He began on the door with smoke coming out of it, to alert the three residents whom he knew lived there. Unfortunately, he heard no answer and realized that the smoke leaking from the sides and bottom of the door was now growing blacker and thicker by the moment. He had to warn the other residents in the basement of the building.
Upon entering his other neighbors’ apartments, he was relieved to see that the neighbors who dwelled in the apartment where the fire originated were safe as they were visiting with their neighbors in the basement apartment.
Carter and the tenants grabbed what they could and helped carry the children to safety.
“I tried to go back upstairs to grab my phone to get help, but by that time, the smoke was too thick, so I ran back outside and we gathered everyone at the front of the house,” he said.
After meeting up with his neighbors, Carter realized a woman who lived in the basement apartment was missing. He acted fast and ran to the basement to retrieve her. After three knocks on her door, the neighbor responded and followed Carter to the outside gathering.
While Carter retrieved the final neighbor from the basement, one of the other residents dialed 911 and three fire trucks and ambulance arrived at the scene. Before the trucks arrived, Carter noticed the children tenants had forgotten their shoes and coats. To escape the cold, Carter found a nearby moving truck.
The whole ordeal lasted a little over five minutes, and the firefighters arrived early enough at the scene to prevent further damage to the rest of the building. Carter’s fellow Citizen Airmen were not surprised to learn of his actions during the next Unit Training Assembly. Master Sgt. Greg Mitchell, 931st MXS aero-repair supervisor, has known Carter since he joined the unit in 2012, and said Carter is known for his inventiveness and generosity.
“This guy would literally give you the shirt off his back if he could.” he said, “I wasn’t surprised to learn about his actions during the first because of this, and his ability to always think outside the box.”