North Camden man pulls neighbor out of burning apartment

Emilio Ortega talks with Camden police chief Scott Thomson about pulling a neighbor from a Saturday fire. The injured man, Emilio Ortiz, is in critical condition at the Temple burn unit.

Police today thanked a North Camden man for rushing into a burning home to help save a neighbor, now in critical condition.

Wilfredo Ortiz is in the burn unit at Temple University hospital suffering from burns on more than two-thirds of his body. Authorities said he may not have made it out at all had it not been for neighbor Emilio Ortega, and the two rookie police officers who helped complete the rescue.

The cause of the fire is undetermined.

Ortega was outside of his mother's house about 4:30 p.m. Saturday talking on his phone when he heard screaming a few doors down and saw black plumes steadily rising into the sky.

Ortega, 36, yelled out to neighbors, warning them about the growing flames and then ran into the fire as others stood at a safe distance away, some snapping photos and taking video.

“The smoke was so strong that I couldn’t breathe, I kept hearing popping, like little explosions all around,” Ortega said.

Ortega went in first with a friend and then alone a second and a third time, making his way up the stairs on his knees, using his cell phone to see through the black smoke and calling out for Ortiz.

After what felt like minutes, Ortega heard a reply.

“He yelled out from the bathroom, ‘help me,’ so I crawled over and I looked at him and I said, ‘you’re not gonna die today,’” Ortega said.

Ortega positioned Ortiz so the injured man could lie on him as he guided the two down the stairs but when he got to the bottom step, Ortega felt himself slipping out of consciousness due to the smoke.

Around that time two rookie Camden Metro officers, Jovan Plaza and Frank Laspata, ran inside and rescued Ortiz, and led Ortega away from the blaze, the cause of which is undetermined.

Ortega was treated for smoke inhalation and released.

On Wednesday Chief Scott Thomson and Officers Plaza and Laspata thanked Ortega and he them in front of TV cameras on the 800 block of N. 8th Street. The officers were named officers of the week and Ortega will be formerly honored in coming weeks, Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen said.

Ortega, who is looking for work and caring for his mother, said the reaction was instinctual. He described Ortiz as a “wonderful neighbor” who helps people on the block by fixing their cars and shoveling snow.

“In this world, if it had been us over here and this man saw, he woulda done it too," Ortega said. "I just hope he’s ok.”

- Julia Terruso