Neighbors Forged by Fire

Neighborliness is often defined by simple acts of kindness.

An egg or a lug wrench borrowed. Picking up your mail when you're away. It's a quality some people shop for when buying a house. They chat with the neighbors before signing the purchase-and-sale agreement.

But you could shop a long time before you found a better neighbor than Cleveland "Louis" Sapp of East Chicago, Ind.

A week and a half ago, Mr. Sapp saved the lives of four his neighbors. One by one.

It was late afternoon on one of those June days that swelter like August. The retired steel worker was on his front porch watching life languidly go by. He'd been raised and saw his two boys grow to men on East 51st Street.

Of course, East Chicago wasn't always like it is now. There weren't always rockheads in the alleyways. Or weeds in vacant lots. You didn't hear gunfire at night or see kids in shootin' dice by the basketball court.

"We're not a close neighborhood," says Bennie, Sapp's wife. But she adds, "We're closer now than we were before last week."

When two fire trucks roared by that Saturday, Louis Sapp left his porch, cutting through an alley toward the dark smoke rising from the Lake County Rehabilitation Center.

Flames shot out of two rooms in the back of the brick nursing home. He stood watching with a small crowd. Waiting. Wondering. Over 100 elderly people lived in there.

"The firemen are still out front," said a teenager at his elbow.

Sapp and three youths began looking in the windows. "We saw two old ladies, one with a walker and one with a wheelchair. A young fellow broke the window with a brick."

Sapp climbed through, lifting each woman out to waiting arms as the acrid smoke clawed at his lungs.

He crawled outside. Gasping for breath. "There's someone in here!" came a shout. Nobody moved.

"I just went in," he says. An elderly woman lay curled up on a bed. "She looked so frail, I didn't want to pick her up." Sapp hollered for help. Another man climbed in the window.

They lifted the mattress with the woman on it through the window.

A fireman appeared in the hall. "He said he needed help lifting this guy. He was all deadweight. We strapped him to a board and lifted him out," Sapp says.

By the time more firefighters arrived, delayed by a passing train, 40 to 50 people were assisting and comforting the victims on the lawn. "If we didn't have the community helping, there would have been casualties - guaranteed," Assistant Fire Chief Peter Bianchi said later.

Sapp shrugs. "Anybody would have done the same thing."

Neighborliness. Simple acts of kindness, East Chicago style.

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