Carrying precious cargo from a raging house fire

Working on his tax returns in the wee hours of Feb. 28, Willie Gantt was startled by an urgent banging at the door of his Wichita, Kans., home. It was a breathless Sharanda Beard, 12, clutching a baby and shaking with fear as she blurted out that the house next door, where she was babysitting seven younger cousins and siblings, was on fire. Gantt, 42, barefoot and in boxer shorts, dashed out the door and "leaped over the fence," says his wife, Vera, 32. "He looked like a lion." Opening the door to the neighbor's house, "the fire knocked me to my knees," says Gantt, the father of three. Racing to the side of the house and crawling through the basement window that Sharanda had broken to escape, Gantt found the children and carried them to safety one by one. The fire, started by clothes near a space heater, gutted the house. "A few more minutes," says fire investigator Don Birmingham, "we'd be talking about eight fatalities."