(Photo courtesy of Patrick O’Neill)
Patrick O’Neill and Matthew Dore are regulars in a predawn running group in Buffalo, New York. The group can be as small as two and as large as eight, and the men in it keep up a steady stream of text banter to set up the time and distance of the next morning run.
They’ve been meeting for 11 years, between 5:15 and 5:30 most days from in front of O’Neill’s house. Winter weather doesn’t bother them, and they usually clip off the miles at about a 7:30 per mile pace. Said O’Neill: “None of us want to get on a treadmill if we don’t have to.”
It has been a mild winter by Buffalo standards, but on January 8 only two men could make it: O’Neill, 43, and Dore, 40. A few miles into their run, they came to an intersection. Because it was just the two of them, they had a decision to make: five miles or six?
“A verbal flip of the coin,” O’Neill said.
They chose six.
Their six-mile route took them down Niagara Street in Buffalo. As they were running, Dore, who was a volunteer firefighter in his 20s, noticed plumes of smoke rising into the sky. O’Neill was chatting along and Dore had to point it out to him.
As they got closer to the smoke, which was coming from a two-story house, O’Neill was struck by the stillness.
No noise. No activity on the street.
But the fire was already raging, with flames shooting high out the back of the upstairs windows. The men started sprinting toward the house.
Dore ran onto the front porch and banged on the door. O’Neill sprinted around to the back and did the same, both yelling, “Help! Fire!” the entire time.
A neighbor across the street came out on her porch and shouted that she’d called 911—neither O’Neill nor Dore carries a cell phone on runs. But while windows were breaking, and pieces of wood were falling off the house, no one came out from inside.
O’Neill and Dore spotted a side door, and in what O’Neill called “a fit of adrenaline,” he kicked in the door. “That was a first in my life,” he said.
When they saw laundry on the staircase, they knew the house was occupied.
O’Neill started to make his way to the second floor, but the smoke was too thick. Through it all, Dore and O’Neill continued their yelling and banging on interior doors. Back on the main floor, an older man, who had clearly been asleep, appeared. He roused two more occupants from the house: his son and his son’s girlfriend. The three went outside and told O’Neill and Dore that the residents of the second-floor apartment had recently moved. The second floor was vacant.
When the first fire truck arrived for what would be a three-alarm fire, Dore told them the first floor had been cleared and the second floor was reportedly unoccupied. “As I see it,” Dore said, “I think the most important thing is we saved the fire department from blindly having to go into the second story to do a search.”
And that was all they needed to do. Save three people and tell the fire department what they knew.
So the two resumed running. “We probably ran a blistering pace home,” O’Neill said.
All told, they were at the burning house for maybe five minutes.
Dore knows the barista at the coffee shop near where they finish their run. He popped in at 6:30 and told her about it as he ordered his coffee. Then he went about his day as a landscape designer.
O’Neill, a chiropractor with a busy practice, usually wakes his wife, Julie, and three kids when he returns from his run. He walked in and his wife stretched and yawned and said, “You smell like a campfire.”
“About that,” O’Neill replied.
Buffalo media initially reported that an alert neighbor spotted the fire, but after Julie posted on her Facebook page that she was proud of her husband, word started getting around the tight-knit Buffalo community about the role O’Neill and Dore played.
They appeared in television interviews. They took texts and calls for several days—and ribbing from the rest of the running group, sorry to miss out on the action.
Since then, it’s been back to the usual routine: day-before texts, the banter, the running.
Just like any other day, for the 11 years before that. Except for one.
By Sarah Lorge Butler