Ralph Heard Jr. was just 9 years old when he saved his own life – and that of his mother and 4-year old brother – after the furnace in their Atlanta home exploded with such force it blew out the windows and engulfed the structure in flames.
Heard was asleep in the bedroom he shared with his older sister that night on Feb. 15, 1978, when he awoke to his sister screaming that the house was on fire. The young boy couldn’t see his sister had jumped from the bedroom window to safety, so he dropped to his knees and crawled through the heavy smoke and searing flames to lead his family to safety. Once outside he collapsed, rolling on the lawn to extinguish his burning clothes. Doctors later determined 70 percent of his body had been burned.
“I remember laying in a bed in the hospital in intense pain,” Heard, 47, tells PEOPLE. “I never wanted to have anyone feel the way that I did.”
Heard put his wish into action when he was just 13. That was the first time he volunteered to tell his story of transitioning from a carefree schoolboy at Peyton Forrest Elementary School to a seriously injured and scarred survivor who underwent about 26 surgeries.
Heard credits his survival to the “stop, drop and roll” lessons, promoted by The Harford Junior Fire Marshal Program, he was taught by firefighters who visited his school a few months before the fire.
If he hadn’t attended that class – during which he received a commemorative red fire hat as a “junior fire marshal” in the program that just celebrated its 70th anniversary – he believes he and his family wouldn’t have survived.
He also credits the good-hearted members of the community – his school principal, members of the fire department and hospital staff – with helping him acclimate to life as a survivor. Those adults spoke to his classmates, explaining that while the young boy would look different when he returned, he was still the same person inside.
“I have always remembered what they did,” says Heard. “They were so kind to explain it. Their actions touched my heart and my spirit.”
In the following years, Heard was recognized for his heroism by many city and state officials, received Silver Medalist and Gold Medalist honors from The Hartford and has been celebrated by many others most recently this past June at an Atlanta Braves baseball game. But speaking to others about his experience and fire safety is among his proudest moments.
“I’ve volunteered to speak to groups every year,” says Heard, who receives no compensation for the 10-15 annual talks he gives about fire safety. “Sometimes I’m at clubs, sometimes at church, but I’m always ready to share my story. I want to keep people safe and I also want to show people to look beyond the physical and see the real person inside, especially with all the bullying [in today’s environment]. It’s not a coincidence this happened to me and that my path has crossed with so many others.”
Former teacher Nazer Buck of Gidding Elementary School in Atlanta met Heard by happenstance about five years ago and was immediately impressed by him.
“He has such a great connection with children,” says Buck, who called Heard’s outreach “a true gift.”
“He would visit my classroom and others and the children just loved him. When they first see him they might stare at him a moment, look confused and then look away,” Buck continues. “Ralph breaks right through that by saying something like ‘Hello, little man’ or ‘Hello, young lady’ and initiates a conversation with them, finds out their interests, and continues on from there. He always shares his experiences and lets them know about fire safety.”
Kathy Bromage, The Hartford’s chief marketing and communications officer, says Heard’s story has a true impact — especially on young children. That spotlights why this corporate-sponsored educational program is so valuable.
“Children that young have open minds and are receptive to the tangible benefits (such as the red hat and badge) of becoming part of the program,” she says of Heard’s often young audiences. “His story and those of others who have learned skills through this program that have saved others’ lives have truly made a difference in all of our communities. It’s through them that people understand the Hartford’s Junior Fire Marshal program and appreciate its benefits.”