“I was running on pure adrenalin”: How this teenager saved three young girls from a house on fire
Earlier this month, 18-year-old high school student Adam Attalla helped three children escape a two-alarm house fire in Mississauga. Here, he describes how he rescued his young neighbours from the blaze.
—As told to Haley Steinberg
“I was born in Egypt and moved to Mississauga with my parents, my two sisters and my brother in 2012, when I was in Grade 3. Our neighbourhood is a friendly melting pot, with families from all over the world. I’ve been doing my Grade 12 year remotely, so I’m spending a lot of time at home. This past year has been okay, I guess. I’ve found it pretty difficult to stay on top of my studies when I’m learning through a computer screen in my bedroom. The longer classes, and being outside of a formal learning environment, make it harder to focus. I study with a tutor online for extra help one-on-one. Luckily, I have friends who live close by, and we see each other most weekends—outside, of course.
“On the morning of Saturday, January 15, I was in the middle of a tutoring session. I had smelled smoke, but I figured it was probably coming from the kitchen. Suddenly my mom barged into my room all panicked and told me that the neighbour’s house was on fire. My parents and my two sisters and I all evacuated, thinking that the fire would spread to our house. The only things I managed to grab were my phone, a jacket and my shoes—I didn’t even have time to put on socks.
“The house on fire was a couple of doors down the street. I didn’t know the family, but my mom was friendly with them. It’s a couple and their five girls, who range from a young baby to a 15-year-old, and so my mom wanted to check and make sure that everybody had gotten out. As soon as we got outside and had a better view of the house, I thought, This looks pretty serious. There were flames shooting out of the back of the house, with tons of black smoke billowing out into the air. It was shocking.
“Two of the girls had managed to evacuate—the 15-year-old and the baby—but two were stuck on the roof, and one was stuck inside on the second-storey of the house. I could see her through one of the street-facing windows. All of the girls were terrified and crying, and the girls on the roof were clinging to each other. My dad and I shouted at them to jump down, saying we would catch them. Two of the girls were too scared, but one was able to shimmy up to the edge of the roof and slide down. We managed to catch her before she hit the ground. I remember bracing hard for the impact, but I barely felt it. I was running on pure adrenaline.
“I looked up at the young girl in the window—she was trapped inside, with the window closed. I tried to climb up onto the roof to to pry the window open and get her out, but I couldn’t reach it. The only thing I could find to grip was a rain gutter, and it wasn’t stable enough to hold my weight. The neighbour who lived next to the burning house saw me trying to climb up and told me to use her roof to get across.
I went inside and quickly got up onto her second-storey roof through a window. The roofs were level and only a couple of feet apart, so I jumped onto the roof of the burning house and ripped out the jambs of the window with my hands. I had to use a lot of force, but I felt like I had superhuman strength. When I opened the window, a huge gust of smoke flew out. I was completely caught off-guard by how harsh and strong it was. I started coughing hard.
“The girl had been freaking out while she was stuck inside, but as soon as I got there, she was completely calm. I think she had inhaled too much smoke and was on the verge of passing out. We didn’t have a chance to say much to each other, but she thanked me for coming to get her. I pulled her through the window and onto the roof, and apparently, while I was up there, I helped the last girl jump down safely. My parents were screaming at me to get down, but all that mattered was getting the girls to safety. I lightly tossed the girl from the window onto the neighbour’s roof, jumped over to join her and we went back into the house through the same second-storey window, down the stairs and outside. There were about 20 or 30 people from the neighbourhood out there by that point. They were all clapping and cheering.
“My parents and I took all five girls to our house while we waited for the ambulance and other authorities to arrive at the scene. The fire department arrived a couple of minutes later. The girls were badly shaken up, especially the younger ones. They were shaking and crying. I think they were in shock. They drank some water while we waited for their parents to arrive.
“The girls’ parents showed up just a few minutes after we arrived at our house. They were totally freaking out—there were two or three ambulances at the scene, and they were so relieved to find out everyone was safe. An ambulance took the girls and me to the hospital. I didn’t feel like I needed to go to a hospital, but EMS said I had inhaled some smoke when I broke the window open and they needed to check me for carbon monoxide poisoning. I was still coughing really hard, but I felt calm. I don’t want to make myself out to be some kind of badass. I was just so glad that I got the girls out. At the hospital, the girls’ father came into my room and thanked me for helping his daughters. I could see how grateful he was. After a few hours of tests, we were all released from the hospital.
“When I got back, CP24 was outside my house reporting on the fire. The reporter had been talking to my sister, who mentioned what I had done. When they saw me, they came over and interviewed me. A few days later, I received a message saying that a very important person was going to call me at 5 p.m. that day. It turned out to be the prime minister. The phone call only lasted a few minutes, but it was pretty surreal. Trudeau told me that I did a good job and showed a lot of bravery. He thanked me a few times. The call was uplifting. I don’t like to attract too much attention, but it made me feel good. I’ve also received a few nice cards and handshakes from people in the neighbourhood. Like I told the CP24 reporter, I didn’t do what I did for the recognition. I just knew I had to do it. Actually, the only recognition I’d like is if Marvel casts me in the next Spider-Man movie.
“I didn’t have time to think in the kind of situation I was faced with. It all just kind of happened. I looked around and realized that nobody else was doing anything. Everyone was just standing around and watching. I thought, I can’t be the type of person to freeze up and hope that someone else will step up. I couldn’t be a bystander.
“After high school, I’d like to join the fire services and also get into acting. I had never thought about becoming a firefighter before, but after seeing their heroism up close, I have so much respect for what they do. They risk their lives to help other people, and that inspired me. Following the fire, I got a full scholarship from the fire academy training division, to pursue firefighting. I’m studying for the online course now, and when that’s done, I’ll attend a boot camp at the academy. I think that most firefighters work about two days a week, so I it would also be a dream to become a Marvel action star.”