- Associated Press - Monday, July 4, 2016

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - Horacio Pino, 50, walked across the Norfolk International Airport concourse Wednesday, clutching a 4-foot-tall teddy bear.

As the former police officer waited for Kayla McDaniel, he recounted the story behind a teddy bear he bought for her 15 years ago, after he saved her life.

This would be their first reunion in a decade. And this time, the woman Pino calls his “second daughter” was bringing someone else along.

Nervous, the Carnegie Medal recipient waited at the gate.

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April 2001 had been a difficult month for Pino as a Tennessee police officer. In two different chases, he was hit by a car and fell through a ceiling. Both resulted in trips to the hospital.

April 19, as it turned out, would involve a trip to the hospital, too.

On the graveyard shift, Pino and his partner, Mike Reed, made their regular rounds in Memphis. Around 1:30 a.m., a call came over the radio about a mobile-home fire. Children were inside, the dispatcher said.

When Reed and Pino entered the mobile home park, they found smoke, but no fire - it was a barbecue nearby.

“We could see the smoke from it going up into the streetlights,” Pino said.

After a quick call to another officer for more information, Reed and Pino headed toward the fire, in a different section of the park. Another officer was waiting in the front yard.

Firefighters hadn’t arrived yet. The men tried to enter, but the intensity of the heat and smoke pushed them back in seconds.

“We were in way over our heads and we just had to get out,” Pino said. “We had no protective gear, no oxygen. Nothing. Just our shirts. That was it.”

As the men walked toward the street to wait for firefighters, two words stopped Pino in his tracks.

McDaniel’s older sister, Alicia, was outside. When she realized Kayla was still inside, she screamed, “The baby!”

“That’s when my superhero showed up,” McDaniel said.

Pino heard the scream and turned back toward the home.

“That’s all it took,” Pino said. “Kids first. It’s always been like that with me.”

Pino went back into the home and found himself surrounded by flames. Everything inside had caught fire, from the furniture to the ceiling. This time, he said, he knew he had to drop to the floor to survive.

Determined, he started crawling toward the bedrooms.

“I held my breath,” Pino said, thanking his runner’s lungs for the ability to hold it for so long.

He entered the first bedroom, and, while searching the perimeter, pieces of the ceiling fell onto his back. He credits his bulletproof vest for saving him from severe burns.

First room cleared, no child inside.

Pino started to panic. He struggled with the decision to go on: He knew he would survive if he left, but he wanted to save the baby.

A quick conversation with a higher power helped him calm down.

“I’m not overzealous religious,” Pino said, “but I have a very strong faith. So I told God, ‘I’m not leaving this trailer without this kid. So, it’s up to you.’ “

The hair on his arms and face was singed and burning debris continued to fall on him, but Pino pressed on. He crawled to a bathroom across the hall. Another perimeter check, another empty room.

He made his way to the other bedroom at the end of the hall. As he moved across the floor, he crawled over what he thought was an over-sizeBarbie doll.

“So I kept crawling because I thought I was looking for a baby,” Pino said.

Blinded by the heavy smoke, Pino kept moving around the room until he crawled over the object again.

This time, he said, he realized it wasn’t a doll: It was a girl - McDaniel, who was 9.

She was unconscious. Foam was coming from her mouth. Pino shook her and tried to perform CPR but didn’t get a response.

Desperate to save her, Pino tried to stand up and carry her out.

“It was the biggest mistake ever,” he said. “For every inch higher you are, the smoke and heat is that much more intense.”

With McDaniel in his arms, Pino fell. He dropped his flashlight and smacked his head against the wall.

His flashlight remained on, and he was able to find the girl within seconds. He knew his only option was to pull her as he crawled out.

“I got her to the front door, and it took everything I had left to pull her over me so paramedics could grab her,” Pino said. “That’s where I blacked out.”

Pino said he woke up several minutes later on a stretcher. A few feet away, another team of medics was treating McDaniel.

“I heard a cry, so I knew she was alive,” Pino said. “I was so happy.”

Both Pino and McDaniel were taken to the hospital for treatment. Pino was released the following day - his 35th birthday. McDaniel would remain there for several more days.

After he was released, Pino bought a teddy bear and went back to the hospital, bear in hand.

Doctors told him McDaniel hadn’t opened her eyes since she arrived, but when a nurse leaned over and told her that the officer who saved her was there to see her, McDaniel made her first movement in three days.

“She held her arms out and hugged me, and then she opened her eyes,” Pino said.

McDaniel said she still has the teddy bear.

At the Norfolk airport Wednesday, Pino greeted the woman he saved 15 years ago and presented the new teddy bear to McDaniel’s 6-year-old daughter, Bayliey.

“I wanted to bring Bayliey here because without him, she wouldn’t even be here,” McDaniel said.

Excited about her new bear, Bayliey told Pino she had a bear just like it back at home in Tennessee.

After Pino saved McDaniel’s life, he received a Carnegie Medal, an award for extraordinary heroism presented by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission. Started by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in 1904, the Pittsburgh-based organization honors those who saved lives, including those who died in the act.

McDaniel said she was thrilled to see the man she calls her hero for the first time in 10 years.

Pino insists he is no hero, just “a man put under fire.”

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Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com

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