Her bedroom was very, very hot, and 6-year-old Anissa Cruz couldn’t breathe.
“I remember feeling suffocated. I was overwhelmed and terrified.”
And then there was a tall man in heavy fire gear, lifting her up and carrying her out of the Bronx apartment where she lived with her mother and father.
Some 16 years after New York City firefighter Stephen McNally saved Cruz and her mother, the now 21-year-old reunited with the retired lieutenant in an emotional meeting at Engine 75 Ladder 33 on Walton Avenue.
Cruz’s dad perished in the inferno, which ignited when he fell asleep while cooking. She and her mother suffered smoke inhalation and burns, but were otherwise OK.
“That event stuck with me, and since that day I have gained so much perspective,” Cruz said this week as hugged McNally and posed for photos with him.
“When I made the plan to come back to New York to visit family... I knew I was going to visit the firehouse,” she said.
And she had a surprise for McNally. Because of him, she is now a firefighter in Florida, where she lives.
“Lt. Stephen McNally was my big hero that day and he did everything to make sure I was OK. I wanted to give back the same way. I was given a second chance and now I want to give somebody else theirs,” Cruz said.
On June 9, 2002, McNally ran into a burning apartment, where he found a semi-conscious woman in a bedroom. As he got her out the front door, she frantically told him her 6-year-old daughter was still inside.
And so McNally went back inside, where he found Anissa passed out in her bed.
For his courage, McNally was awarded the Arthur J. Laufer Memorial Medal in 2003.
He is now retired, but he remembers that apartment fire and Anissa Cruz.
“It was a difficult situation, seeing a child in that condition,” he said. “But seeing her now, and seeing all of her accomplishments, is overwhelming.
“She is making a difference, trying to help people and that is awesome. I’ve been retired from the FDNY for several years, and I miss this job. This was very special."