It all started as an average Saturday afternoon for Samir Al-Rubaiy, a first year computer systems technician student at Algonquin.
But before the day ended, Al-Rubaiy found himself being called a hero.
With the help of two neighbours and a lot of quick thinking, Al-Rubaiy managed to alert apartment building residents to a fire, break down a door and save the lives of twin children on Dec. 5. For that, he was honoured with an award for bravery at the college on Feb. 25.
In an interview with the Times, Al-Rubaiy recounted the tense moments as he and his neighbours dealt with the emergency.
On that day, the 43 year-old looked up from his homework as he heard a frantic woman’s voice at the door of his Caldwell Avenue apartment.
“Come help me, quickly!”
It was his neighbour, Bernadette Tshisuaka, beckoning wildly at her own door across the hall. She explained that she had ducked out quickly to take out some trash, leaving her twins, Jeremiah and Neva, 2, inside her apartment.
But when she came back they had somehow locked themselves in, and locked her out. The minutes ticked by as Al-Rubaiy – with help from some neighbours – tried to unlock her door.
As more time passed with little results, Tshisuaka became increasingly hysterical.
“She lost her mind,” Al-Rubaiy said. “She fell to the floor in tears.”
Calling the police hadn’t yet entered Al-Rubaiy’s mind. He didn’t realize the food Tshisuaka had left cooking on the stove inside had started a fire, with Jeremiah and Neva trapped inside.
Finally, Al-Rubaiy was able to remove the doorknob. When he peeked through the hole into Tshisuaka’s kitchen, he couldn’t believe what he saw. The apartment was filled with thick, black smoke.
“It was a big fire, really big,” Samir said, gesturing with his hands.
He stood and asked a neighbour to go get his kids and take them outside. She reached for her phone to contact the building’s security.
“Hang up and call 9-1-1, there’s no time!” Al-Rubaiy ordered as he hurried to pull the fire alarm. People immediately began to flee the building.
Relieved that his own family had at least reached safety, Al-Rubaiy immediately got to work. The three men bashed the door repeatedly with a fire extinguisher. Finally, the door split down the middle and they were able to get inside.
As the smoke billowed from the apartment into the corridor, Tshisuaka fell apart.
Luckily, Tshisuaka’s apartment had the same layout as his own, so he knew where to go. Al-Rubaiy found Jeremiah after about a minute, huddled next to the couch in the living room.
He yelled for the others and swung Jeremiah over his shoulder, carrying him to the safety of the corridor where he handed him to a neighbour.
“I had to see if the fire department had arrived, so I went back to my apartment,” Al-Rubaiy said.
But when he got to the window overlooking the street, there were no emergency responders to be found. Al-Rubaiy stumbled to his kitchen, where he began violently gagging and coughing up black tar from smoke inhalation.
“I assumed someone else had grabbed the daughter, Neva,” he explained. “So I went outside to find my family. But when I asked if anyone had grabbed the other child, they said no.”
There were still no emergency responders on the scene.
“The Ottawa Citizen said fire fighters responded in 10 minutes,” he said. “That’s wrong. I was there waiting for them, and no one was coming for a long time.”
Al-Rubaiy decided to take matters into his own hands, and hurried back into the burning building.
This time, he took a deep breath before entering Tshisuaka’s apartment. He shouted for Nevaeh, but all he could hear were voices coming from the TV that still blared loudly. Al-Rubaiy couldn’t see a thing through the thick smoke. His eyes and throat were burning. He fumbled around the apartment, with only his sense of touch to guide him.
He was about to give up and go back, when he heard a small voice.
“I wasn’t sure if it was from the TV or whether God had sent me that voice,” said Al-Rubaiy. “But I thought, okay. Let’s continue.”
Then, Al-Rubaiy felt something small brush his leg. It was Nevaeh. She was unconscious.
“She has asthma,” Al-Rubaiy explained. “She was in there for a very long time. She was in the emergency room for many days after that.”
The next few minutes were a blur for Al-Rubaiy. He made his way back through the apartment, stumbling over kitchen chairs and bumping into walls.
“I don’t remember what happened,” said Al-Rubaiy. “The mom told me later that I handed her daughter safely to her. She was very thankful.”
Al-Rubaiy was honoured and humbled to receive an award for bravery at the second annual Cyber Security Days conference held at the college on Feb. 25. One of the conference’s sponsors, Cisco, presented Al-Rubaiy with the award. He accepted it with tears in his eyes.
“People were making it a really big deal,” he said. “And I guess it is a big deal. If I wasn’t there, I don’t think they’d be out. I had to do what I could.”