We don’t have all of the facts from the night of Feb. 26 when Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. But in remembering his son, Tracy Martin has touched on how the Florida teen saved his father from a house fire when the boy was 9 years old. On Wednesday, I asked Martin to tell me what happened that day.
I’d expected that Martin might become overwhelmed with sorrow and maybe seize up as he recounted the story. Instead, it was the only time in our talk when his face appeared to lift. His voice sounded lively. His cadence quickened.
What surprised me was my reaction. As Martin recounted the ordeal, I found it difficult to follow my training as a journalist, to keep my own emotions in check.
“We were coming from one of his football games,” Martin began. “As soon as we got in the house, we started watching a college football game. I remember it was the University of Miami against [the University of] North Carolina.
“We’re sitting on the edge of the bed, watching the game. He asked could I cook him some chicken wings and fries. I went in the kitchen, put the grease on and sat back down on the edge of the bed, and fell asleep.”
As Trayvon slept beside him, Martin coughed himself awake. The pot of grease had been on the stove for three and a half hours. Smoke was filling the house.
“The kitchen cabinets had caught fire,” he told me. “The first thing I saw was a towel on the kitchen counter. I took the towel and threw it, trying to smother the pot … the towel drug the pot off the stove. The grease splattered all over my legs. My body went into shock.
“I tried to stand up. I couldn’t stand up. So, I started calling out to [Trayvon]. I called him for a couple of minutes and finally he wakes up. … He opened the [front] door. … He grabbed me and pulled me out of the kitchen onto the patio. He went back in the house and grabbed the phone, came back out on the patio and called 911.”
Martin, who said he was treated for third-degree burns, is no small man. He’s well built and stands at least 6 feet 1 inch. I tried to figure what it must have taken for a young boy to tow this man even a foot.
“Had I been in the house by myself,” he said, “I’d have died right there.”
That’s when it struck me, as a parent: This boy wasn’t much older than my child is today. If my nearly 8-year-old daughter had saved my life, I’d feel overwhelmed with a desire to repay her in kind. Her act would deepen my lifelong conviction to protect her from harm — at all times, at any cost.
Sitting across from Martin, I recognized in him the ache of a father who lost the chance to make good on his debt.
Then I imagined that I was him and Trayvon was my daughter, and for a long moment I could not breathe.
As Martin put it in a recent MSNBC interview: “A 9-year-old kid saved his dad’s life, and I wasn’t there to save his life.”
(Corey Dade is a correspondent for NPR.org.)