Originally published on Nov. 18, 2003
By Bill Bryan
Four times, a desperate man helped his children out a third-floor window of their burning house and onto the limbs of a tree.
And four times they dropped more than 20 feet into the arms of a mysterious passer-by, who caught each like fielding punts in a life-and-death football game played Monday in the 3600 block of South Jefferson Avenue. Keith Colenburg, the father, climbed out last, making the same jump and escaping — like the children — without apparent serious injuries.
"This could have been a real tragedy," said Kim Bacon, a spokeswoman for the St. Louis Fire Department. "There was real potential for a mortal fall." Bacon credited quick thinking by the father and by a blond man in a lumberjack shirt who grabbed the falling kids and left before firefighters got his name.
"He's a hero," said bystander Aisia Thomas, 27. She said that her children go to school with some of the children who had been trapped, and that she was passing the scene when she saw flames shooting out of the building.
Two of the children he caught were about 9 or 10 years old, and the other two were toddlers about 2 or 3, authorities said.
Two of the children were taken to Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital — one with a bloody mouth and jaw injury — but neither was seriously hurt, according to the Fire Department. The other two children were treated at the scene for soot in their noses.
Colenburg slightly injured an ankle. He was taken to St. Louis University Hospital with cuts on his hands from breaking out the window.
The fire was discovered shortly after 4 p.m. after Colenburg, who was on the first floor, smelled smoke, Bacon said. He went to investigate and look for his children.
He found heavy smoke but no children on the second floor, then reached the four huddled together on the third floor. He broke out a window and placed each into the tree and told them to jump to the man below.
The cause of the blaze was undetermined, but fire investigators said it was accidental.
Colenburg's wife was at work at the time of the fire, and three other children were on their way home from school.