Student helps 4 escape blaze

Matthew Stergar, a 22-year-old College of Charleston student and former firefighter, helped four people escape a fire early Sunday on St. Philip Street.

Matthew Stergar, a 22-year-old college student and former fireman, is being called a hero.

He helped four people escape from a house fire in downtown Charleston.

Fortunately for those people, Stergar tends to stay up late. Around 3:15 a.m. Sunday, he was watching television in his apartment near St. Philip and Line streets when he smelled smoke. He stepped outside and saw flames shooting from a two-story house down the street.

Stergar, a biology major at the College of Charleston, dialed 911 on his cell phone and took off running toward the burning house. Flames were shooting across the second-story porch and rolling over the roof.

Amee Ways, 23, and Brian Holbrook, 22, were asleep upstairs. It was their first night in the apartment.

A couple in their 70s lived downstairs.

Stergar stood at the bottom of the stairs and started yelling. Ways and Holbrook woke up and ran downstairs. Ways was burned on her right shoulder, probably from the melting gutter. Holbrook was uninjured.

The downstairs couple also got out. The older man walked with a cane, and Stergar picked him up and carried him over his shoulder when sparks started shooting out of an electric transformer overhead. They all made it to a porch across the street.

"I didn't think about it," Stergar said. "I was acting on instinct."

Stergar spent two years as a firefighter and paramedic with the Ashley River Fire Department before he became too busy with school and work at Medical University Hospital. He's studying to be a pediatrician.

"I really hated to see him go," Ashley River Fire Chief Scott Inabinet said. "He was a tremendous asset when he was here, always willing to jump right in when there was an emergency."

Within minutes, the block filled with fire engines to douse the flames, but the house was badly charred. The residents lost about everything. Two cats that lived upstairs perished.

The fire at 258 St. Philip St. started on the second-story porch. Officials called the blaze suspicious and are investigating whether it's the latest in a series of arsons that have hit older houses in downtown Charleston.

Ways' parents drove up from Atlanta to help the young couple. They were all at the house Tuesday afternoon, salvaging what they could. There wasn't much left.

The parents had nothing but praise for Stergar.

"If he had not woke them up, they wouldn't have gotten out alive," George Ways said.

"He's a hero in my book," Nancy Ways said.

Stergar shrugged it off, although he admits it was a thrill fighting a fire again.

"I'm not a hero," Stergar said. "I just did what any other person would have done."

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.