St. Paul family credits 17-year-old neighbor with saving man's life after mishap with fire

If not for 17-year-old Manuel Hernandez, a St. Paul man might not be alive today. (FOX 9)

The family of a St. Paul man who accidentally set himself on fire says he is alive today thanks to the quick-thinking heroic efforts of his 17-year-old neighbor.

“He knows that he saved his life,” says Jim Vanwert’s wife Laura Schwantes. "He says he owes him his life."

As Schwantes describes, at 9:05 p.m. on February 12, her husband stepped outside their home on Griffith Street in St Paul to start a fire in the fire pit.

"We heard a big boom," Schwantes said. "He came running in the house and he was completely on fire with his hands up in the air."

Schwantes believes Vanwert may have used gas on the fire and, from that moment on, sheer panic unfolded. The man she’s been with for more than 40 years screamed desperately for help.

"We had a fire plan,” Schwantes said. “That just went out with everything.”

Schwantes says Vanwert tried to roll in the snow to put out the flames, but panicked and ran inside when it didn’t work.

"As he’s stumbling and falling and touching the furniture, everything else is burning,” Schwantes said.

From there, the fire quickly spread through the inside of the house. In the midst of the chaos, Schwantes and her three grandchildren pushed Vanwert into the shower in an attempt douse him with water, but then the flames trapped him in the bathroom.

"I just heard screaming from my bedroom window," Manuel Hernandez said.

Seventeen-year-old Hernandez ran from next door to help his close friend and neighbor and pulled him outside through a small bathroom window. 

“I just did what I had to do," Hernandez said.

Now, more than a week later, Vanwert is suffering from heart failure and third-degree burns on 35 percent of his body. But his neighbors believe he’s alive thanks to his humble young neighbor, who is hesitant to take the credit.

"He’s my hero," says Schwantes.

Vanwert is having a procedure Friday to remove some of his damaged skin. Meanwhile, the home he shares with his wife and three grandchildren is in need of extensive repairs. A GoFundMe page has been started to help and the family works with their insurance company to find a new place to stay.