Just after midnight on a cool July morning, Manek Campbell, 34, awoke to the smell of smoke. At first, she thought her teenage daughter Unek Langford and stepdaughter Kennedi Campbell might still be up making a snack. Manek’s husband, Kenneth, was working his overnight shift as a medical courier.
“What are you girls burning out there?” Manek hollered.
“It’s not us!” Unek, 15, yelled back from the bedroom down the hall that she and Kennedi, 14, shared. “The smoke woke us up too.”
Seven months pregnant, Manek eased out of bed and into the living room, already plotting the quickest route out of the apartment. At the back door, she thought they might escape down the stairs from her third-floor apartment to a parking lot. But when she opened the door, a surge of heat and smoke nearly knocked her backward, and she heard the crackling of burning wood. She slammed the door shut.
“We’re going to die!” Unek and Kennedi wailed from the living room. Manek moved as fast as she could across the apartment and opened the front door. Gray smoke billowed in. The three women got down on their hands and knees and crawled out the doorway.
[pullquote]“I could hear my daughters screaming for me, and all I could think about was getting us out.”[/pullquote]
As they made their way under the cloud of smoke, Manek saw that her neighbor Ebony Kelley had collapsed outside her apartment in the hallway. Ebony’s young daughter Jamilah Cobb was sobbing near her mother’s motionless body. Manek grabbed the little girl’s hand and pulled her along as they scooted to the stairs and down into the front yard, where a crowd of onlookers had gathered. A neighbor took Jamilah and wrapped her in a coat.
Manek had grabbed her phone and dialed 911. Then she remembered Ebony. “I can’t let Jamilah grow up without a mother,” Manek recalls thinking.
Black smoke poured from the windows of the apartments. Still, the mother-to-be lumbered back up two flights of stairs and felt her way along the hallway to Ebony. Her neighbor was lying on her back, mumbling incoherently. Manek grabbed Ebony and dragged her down the hallway. Manek then hoisted the five-foot-tall, 120-pound woman and cradled her against her belly, carrying her down the stairs.
“She didn’t feel heavy,” Manek says. “I could hear my daughters screaming for me, and all I could think about was getting us out.”
Minutes after Manek appeared outside with Ebony in her arms and sat her down in the yard, Omaha Fire Department firefighters arrived.
Ambulance personnel took Ebony to a local hospital, where she was treated for smoke inhalation. Beyond a scratchy throat, Manek had no injuries, and doctors said her pregnancy was safe.
Later, after an investigation traced the incident to a grease fire in Ebony’s kitchen, the building was condemned, forcing Manek and her family to move in with her mother in Omaha temporarily.
Now they live in a duplex not far from their old place. Two months after the fire, Manek gave birth to a healthy boy she named King.
Last spring, the American Red Cross honored Manek at an award ceremony, where she was reunited with Ebony and Jamilah for the first time since the fire. “[Ebony] kept telling me I’m a hero, but I don’t feel like a hero,” Manek says. “It’s just something I would want someone to do for me.”