Jay Thurston had only been back home for a short while Friday, Dec. 24 when he first realized something was wrong at his neighbor’s house.

“We heard pounding on the door, and then some kids screaming,” said Thurston.

Thurston and his wife, Hana, had returned from a shopping trip about 10 minutes earlier. They had almost returned to the store because they had forgotten to purchase a certain item, but decided against making the second trip. So they were home when three girls from the house next to them, located at 27 Cheri Lane, came running over in a panic.

“We both initially thought someone was hurt, because they were out sledding,” said Thurston. “But then we heard them screaming that their house was on fire, that their grandmother was in there and that it was Christmas and their presents were in there. They were totally freaking out.”

Thurston said he turned around, grabbed the fire extinguisher from the kitchen in his house and handed his cell phone to Hana and told her to call 911. While Hana kept an eye on the three girls, Thurston went to his neighbor’s house.

Thurston said he was familiar with the floor plan of his neighbor’s house, because he had been living in the neighborhood while the house was being constructed. Cheri Lane is located off of Belfast Road (Route 52) in Northport, about halfway between Greenlaw’s Corner and Beech Hill Road.

“I knew the layout of their house,” said Thurston. “I knew where their propane tank was, I knew where their utility room was, and I knew exactly where the fire was.”

According to a press release issued Saturday by the Maine Department of Public Safety, a candle in a bedroom was the cause of the Christmas Eve fire. Thurston said the bedroom was in the front of the house. He said being inside the burning building matched the stereotype many people probably have in their minds.

“It was just like in the movies,” said Thurston. “It was pitch black.”

Thurston said he could both see and hear where the woman still inside the house — 71-year-old Nina Tyutyunnyk, the grandmother that the girls had told the Thurstons about — was located. Thurston said she was mumbling something, and that he started to pull her out.

When he got her to the door, however, the woman broke free and went back into the building. Prior to heading back into the building to attempt and get Tyutyunnyk a second time, Thurston said he discarded the fire extinguisher he had brought with him.

“I knew it wasn’t going to do a thing,” he said.

Returning inside the burning building, Thurston said he held his breath and stayed low to the floor. He said he did have to take a few breaths while inside the house, and after having experienced that, he can’t imagine how Tyutyunnyk managed to survive since she was in the house so much longer than he was.

On the second trip out of the house, Tyutyunnyk once again broke free from Thurston and went back in to the house. Thurston said the woman, who is Ukrainian, doesn’t speak English. Because his wife is Czech, Thurston said he knew babushka means grandmother, and he kept saying that word and “Out, out!”

Thurston said he thought Tyutyunnyk’s husband might have been in the house, and that that was why she kept going back into the building. The home at 27 Cheri Lane is owned by Mark Cerone and his wife, Ludmila, and Ludmila Cerone’s parents — Tyutyunnyk and her husband — also live there, along with the Cerone’s 10-year-old daughter, Julia.

A 2-year-old girl named Sophia, a niece to the Cerones, was napping when the fire broke out, according to Thurston, but she woke up when the smoke alarms went off. Sophia and her older sister Diana, who Thurston said is about 13 years old, were visiting at the Cerone’s house when the fire broke out. Thurston said Sophia and Diana live in Orono.

[Editor’s note: This version of the story corrects the description of the relationship between the three girls who were at the Cerone residence when the fire broke out. It also includes their names and ages.]

Diana and Julia were able to get Sophia from the house before they all ran to the Thurstons seeking help. Because she had been napping, Thurston said Sophia wasn’t dressed for being outside, and was barefoot when she arrived at his house with the two other girls.

Hana Thurston checked with the girls if their grandfather was in the house, and she was able to relay the message to Jay that the grandfather was not in the house.

“So I thought she [Tyutyunnyk] must have been delirious, trying to put out the fire,” said Thurston.

Thurston said he is not sure exactly how many times he went back into the building to get Tyutyunnyk, but each time he attempted to bring her out she went back in. Thurston said he thinks he went in two more times after the first two failed attempts.

“Finally, the last time it [the fire] was getting much worse, and I knew I couldn’t go back in there much longer,” he said. So he grabbed Tyutyunnyk, put her over his shoulder and headed out the door onto the deck.

“When I laid her down on the deck, I thought she was dead,” said Thurston. “She was staring into nowhere, and it was like she wasn’t there.”

Tyutyunnyk didn’t appear to be breathing when he first brought her out, Thurston said, and he was getting ready to perform CPR when he noticed that she was breathing again. Thurston was preparing to get Tyutyunnyk off of the deck when another neighbor, Norman Brimer, showed up. Together, the two men carried the woman down off the deck and onto the lawn, where emergency personnel were then able to take care of her.

Tyutyunnyk was eventually taken to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, according to the Maine DPS press release, where she was being treated for “serious burns and smoke inhalation.” Thurston said Tyutyunnyk had second- and third-degree burns on her arms and her face, and that her hair was burned as well.

“It’s something you don’t really want to see,” said Thurston.

Thurston said he has been in touch with some of Tyutyunnyk’s family members since the fire. As of Sunday morning, Dec. 26, the latest he had heard from them was that Tyutyunnyk was recovering and was now able to breathe on her own. Thurston said everyone who has heard about what happened believes that he is responsible for saving Tyutyunnyk’s life, but he doesn’t necessarily think he did anything all that spectacular.

“People keep calling me a hero,” he said, “but I think most people would have done the same thing.”

Thurston said he is usually a “pretty spacey” person who “can’t multi-task at all,” but that on Christmas Eve, as he went into his neighbor’s house, the adrenaline was pumping and he found himself very focused on the job at hand.

“Everything was clear to me,” he said.

The press release from Maine DPS stated Tyutyunnyk “went back into the burning house … a number of times to retrieve money and personal items,” but Thurston questioned that claim.

Thurston said Tyutyunnyk was undoubtedly suffering from shock by the time he got to her on Friday, and that that was likely affecting the woman’s judgment and decision-making process. She may have thought her 2-year-old granddaughter Sophia — who she often watches — was still in the house, Thurston said, or she may have been trying to put the fire out herself. Thurston said Tyutyunnyk had a little bucket of water in her hand at one point when he was trying to get her out of the house.

If she was going back in for money and personal items, Thurston said, it might have been because those items hold even greater significance for Tyutyunnyk than they would for most people. Thurston said the woman’s husband is a “really smart engineer,” but he doesn’t know much English (he is Ukrainian as well) and is working at Hannaford. The couple has been saving the money he earned, Thurston said, keeping it along with personal documents such as their passports.

“She might have been thinking about how hard he has worked,” said Thurston of Tyutyunnyk.

Thurston said he and Brimer went to Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast later Friday to get checked out for smoke inhalation, and that they were cleared pretty quickly.

Thurston gave credit to firefighters and other emergency personnel for what he said was a very fast response time. He said other passerby noticed that something didn’t look right and decided to stop and offer whatever help they could.

The two older girls, Julia and Diana, who rescued Sophia from the burning building deserve credit as well, Thurston said — both for getting the younger girl out, and for then alerting their neighbors to what was going on.

Thurston said their “quick response, bravery and the fact that they did exactly what they should have done” most likely prevented the situation from being worse than it was. He said the girls were “very well-educated about fire safety,” and he encouraged other parents to talk with their children about fire safety issues so that they would know what to do in similar situations.