CHURUBUSCO, Ind. (WANE) - Being a firefighter is Ben Rinker's dream job.
"It's a passion. I love helping people," he said.
He's been on the Smith Township Volunteer Fire Department in Churubusco for 12 years and was promoted to captain two years ago. Then last Friday, he faced a fire he'll never forget.
"We were on our way into Fort Wayne and we drove through the smoke. That's when I first realized it," Rinker said.
Rinker was with his wife and three boys, ages eight, six and two, when he came upon a house engulfed in flames along U.S. 33. He didn't hesitate when he pulled the family van onto the side of the highway.
"Before I knew it, he was out of the car and gone into the darkness," Aimee Rinker, Ben's wife, recalls. "We were watching the fire get bigger and bigger and the power lines lying in the grass bouncing all over the place like a fireworks display."
The fire had already burned through power lines near the house and there were live wires in the yard, Ben Rinker explained. He radioed dispatch to call in the fire and then his training took over. Rinker ran toward the home as flames were leaping out of the windows.
"The front door was cracked a little and I could see a man lying face down, but I saw his arm move," he said.
Without any protective firefighter gear or an air tank, Rinker went in the front door.
"I picked him up and carried him out of the house," he said. "There was fire coming out the door where the man was. Fire was rolling out over the top of us."
That man was Stephan Harris, 63. Rinker ran back to his van with Harris in his arms.
"He was cradling him like a baby," Aimee said.
Rinker left Harris with his wife and ran back to the house to search for any more people inside.
"My heart was racing and my motherly instincts kicked in. I started talking to him and trying to find out how he was doing," Aimee said.
When Rinker made it back to the house, he couldn't go much further.
"The fire was so intense, it had already breached the windows. There was too much fire. Going in the door was hot enough," Rinker said.
When fire departments arrived with trucks and water, Rinker joined in to help put the flames out. A fellow firefighter brought him his gear from the station. The fire was difficult to put out because the home was under construction.
"There was a roof over another roof. When the fire burned as intensely as it did in the center of the house, the roof burned away and the existing roof fell down on top of that. We had a lot of entrapped fire. You couldn't get out to it because the integrity of the structure was compromised. We were able to gain access from one end over the garage and shoot water down into," Rinker explained.
Fortunately, no one else was in the house. Rinker said Harris was on oxygen, and his nasal cannula had melted into two pieces. At the scene, the Rinkers didn't see any burns on Harris, but his family said he did have some small burns on his arms and legs.
"He had a Guardian Angel. He was lying in fire. The debris that had fallen down from the ceiling was on the ground and he was lying in it. It's amazing with that amount of fire that he wasn't burned worse than he was. The reason why is out of our hands," Rinker said.
Harris went to a hospital in serious condition. His family told NewsChannel 15 that Harris made major recovery progress Sunday night. He was sitting up and eating. The Harris family is calling Rinker a hero.
"There are not too many people in this world like that," Karla Harris, Stephan Harris's daughter-in-law, said. "We learned there's a Lord that night. God was there."
The Rinkers also think a higher power was at work Friday night. They were running late for their Fort Wayne trip. Had they been on time, they would have driven by 45 minutes before the fire.
"God's timing was for me to be there when I was at that time," Rinker said. "My faith in God tells me He's using me for something. If it's that one incident where I saved that man's life, I'm glad I was there and gave that man another chance."
The quote on the family's kitchen chalkboard reads, "God works all things together for the good." Especially apropos considering this wasn't the first time Rinker's saved a life.
He said this is the sixth time he's saved or help save another person. One time was when a man was choking in a restaurant. Another time was when a man in his 30s showed up at the fire station in cardiac arrest. Another time was just last summer when his youngest son almost drowned in a swimming pool and he resuscitated him. But, being called a hero leaves Rinker short for words.
"It's humbling. I don't know what to say. You don't think about that. It's just what we do," he said.
The magnitude of his actions isn't lost on his family or the community.
"It brings tears to my eyes to see the looks on my children's faces as they watched their daddy save someone's life. It's powerful," Aimee said.
Rinker works at C&A Tool for his "day" job and is always on call with the fire department. But, he hopes one day to join a
fulltime fire department. Now, his boys want to follow in their father's footsteps and grow up to be firefighters too.
"They just keep saying, 'I can't believe Daddy went into that fire in his street clothes and brought that man out. That's their hero," Aimee said with a catch in her voice.
The Harris family said they hope to somehow honor Rinker.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
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