NORTH FORK — When a fire destroyed a mobile home in North Fork last Friday, everyone was very lucky to have gotten out alive and unscathed. However the real story of how that happened and who was responsible for saving six lives is just now being told.
It was just after 10 p.m. on May 20, and Zachary Zukovsky was standing outside the Old South Fork Inn with his wife Emilie Williams and 12-year-old daughter Rylee Zukovsky, enjoying a view of the stars.
Zac has lived in North Fork for more than 20 of his 43 years, and was house-sitting for his ex-wife Jennifer Casner, daughter of Jack and Cathey Thornburg, with whom he is still very dear friends.
Zac just happened to look over at the mobile home next door and thought he saw a flame in the water heater cabinet, which was on the exterior of the trailer.
“I don’t even know why I looked over in that direction, but when I saw flames, I ran over and looked in the window,” says Zac. “There were no lights on inside and it was all dark, but I could see there were already flames in the bathroom, burning the ceiling.”
After a quick glance over at his wife and daughter, and with no thought to his own safety, Zac ran to the front door and shoved it open, pushing his way into a curtain of dense black smoke.
“I didn’t know the layout of the mobile and couldn’t see anything, so I just started screaming ‘Fire!’ and yelling for them to run towards the sound of my voice,” says Zac, still clearly emotional about the experience.
Tahsha Goldberg and her kids came out of their bedrooms and started running toward him as the mobile home began to burn in earnest, and they raced outside. It was at that point that one of the girls noticed that one of the children was not accounted for — an 8-year-old boy.
“The mom was inconsolable; crying and freaking out,” says Zac, “and I kept asking her how many kids were in there, but couldn’t get an answer.”
Zac didn’t know where to go to find the young boy, but he raced back inside the house, followed by Tahsha. By now the smoke was nearly to the floor, but they groped their way back to the sleeping boy’s bedroom.
“Just as she was grabbing him off the bed, I saw the flames in his room ignite — just in that instant,” he recalls. “Mom told the boy to run, and since he couldn’t see, he ran right into me. I grabbed him, mom grabbed the back of my shirt, and we ran back out of the house.”
Not two seconds later the entire mobile home was completely engulfed in flames, says Zac, and only minutes after that, it was reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble. When firefighters arrived at the scene, there was little they could do to save the home, but they kept the fire from spreading to surrounding structures and started mop-up.
“I had a choice not to go in, but you either have to commit or cower, and I’ve never considered myself a coward,” says Zac, who is still shaken days later as he recalls the incident.
If not for a chance glimpse at the house next door and the quick actions of one man who was willing to risk his life to save those of people he didn’t even know, this entire family may have perished in their sleep.
“The whole thing happened in about 20 seconds, then the entire house went up,” says Zac of the fire that incinerated everything the family owned. “I don’t care about the possessions; all I cared about was getting those kids out.” Several of the family’s pets were lost in the blaze.
The next day, Zac and his wife and daughter returned to find the family sorting through the rubble that used to be their home. As they walked over to deliver some bags of clothing, one of the little girls asked his daughter Rylee, “Who was that man last night who helped us?” To which she proudly replied, “That was my daddy.”
Zac is well known in the North Fork Community, having taught at the Chawanakee Unified School District. He was also nominated for Citizen of the Year about 10 years ago, and participates in such annual events as the much-anticipated Chili Cookoff.
He now works as project coordinator for SERVE Central California in the Department of Social Work Education at Fresno State, providing educational and job placement opportunities for Native American students at seven campuses across Central California.
Having worked with the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, Zac is able to use his understanding of indigenous cultures to do what he says is very rewarding work.
“I love my job,” he says, and as far as his heroic efforts last Friday, it’s all part of service to the community. “I love my community, love my town, and would have done the same for anybody.”