They had just finished lunch at a café in Orange County—Chuck Rees, his wife, Laurie, and her mother, Ann Marie Effert. Then Rees, 51, spotted smoke rising from a hill a few blocks away. “Let’s get up there!” he cried.
Keeping the dark plumes in sight, the trio drove through winding, unfamiliar streets and eventually came upon a white two-story house with black smoke billowing from the back.
Rees pulled his car alongside a couple standing on the curb in front of the house. “Anybody in there?” he asked them.
“I knocked, but nobody answered,” the man said. “We’ve called 911.”
Rees threw his car into park. “Chuck, don’t,” Laurie said, although she knew he wouldn’t listen. He’d once dropped the receiver of a pay phone in the middle of a conversation with her to chase a purse snatcher.
He pointed to the flames coursing up the back of the house. The woman looked at him, frightened.
“Laurie, I’ve got to,” he said, and jumped out of the car.
Photograph by Brad Swonetz/Redux
Rees ran up the driveway along the right side of the house, hoping to find the source of the fire and put it out with a garden hose. A locked gate blocked his way into the backyard. He considered climbing over it, but a large Labrador retriever mix appeared on the other side and bared its teeth at him. That means somebody lives here, Rees thought.
He sprinted to the front door and tried the handle; it was locked. He pounded on the door; no one answered. Then he moved along the left side of the house, past what looked like a small addition. He grabbed onto a chain-link fence and pulled it back far enough for him to squeeze through. When he scaled a six-foot-high cinder blockwall just inside the fence, another large Lab mix stood waiting for him; this one was wagging its tail.
As he scanned the back of the house for a hose, Rees noticed a small steel door in the addition. He banged on it with his fist. “Is anybody in there?” he shouted. “Your house is on fire!” No one answered. He banged on the door again.
Soon he heard a woman’s faint voice from the other side of the door. “Hello?” she said.
Jess Andresen/Orange County Register
Rees yanked the door open a couple of inches. He stuck his hand through the gap and discovered that the doorknob was tethered to something, preventing it from opening all the way. “Ma’am, your house is on fire,” he repeated. “You need to get out.”
He spotted a heavyset elderly woman with long white hair through the crack in the doorway. Barefoot and dressed in cutoff jeans and a tank top, she looked disheveled and confused, as if he had awakened her.
“There’s a fire,” Rees told her again. “I need to get you out of here.”
“I don’t believe you,” the woman responded as she untethered the door so that it opened.
“I’ll show you,” Rees said.
He grabbed her hand, led her into the backyard, and pointed to the flames coursing up the back of the house. The woman looked at him, frightened.
Rees was afraid too. He knew she wouldn’t be able to climb a wall or squeeze through a fence the way he had. They’d need to find another way out.
He guided the woman and dog back into the addition and through a doorway connecting it to the house. The fire raged in the kitchen and dining area to their left. Smoke raced along the ceiling and churned steadily downward.
He glanced back inside the addition and saw a door he hadn’t noticed before. He opened it, and there stood Laurie and another neighbor. “Take her and the dog,” Rees told them. The pair took the woman and her pet to safety. (The other dog was rescued later.)
Rees ventured back into the living room to check for others. The smoke had descended nearly to the floor, and he could hear the pop of boards burning upstairs. The heat was almost unbearable. He moved through the downstairs rooms, coughing and yelling up the stairwell to anyone who might be there. After one last look around, Rees fled.
A fire crew arrived, and Rees quickly debriefed them. Moments later, flames engulfed the house.
Exhausted and covered in soot, Rees climbed back into his car and drove his wife and mother-in-law home to Tustin before anyone got his name.
That night, the local news reported that an anonymous man had rescued an elderly woman with dementia from her burning house. Effert proudly called media outlets to identify her son-in-law as the hero.
But he didn’t do it for fame, Rees says. “It was something that needed to be done.”