DAEGU, Republic of Korea – Quick thinking and teamwork by a pair of U.S. Army Soldiers and a family member helped 15 Korean civilians safely evacuate an apartment building fire on Nov. 13. For their efforts that day, the trio’s bravery was recognized by the leaders of Daegu emergency services on Nov. 24.
On the afternoon of Nov. 13, most of the people around Camp Walker seemed to be going about their day as usual, with no one yet noticing the billows of black smoke coming from the top floor of the four-story structure.
Azizi Wilkins, the 13-year-old son of Maj. Brandon Wilkins, was riding his skateboard back home when he saw signs of the fire, but no emergency vehicles in the immediate area. Sgt. 1st Class Gisele Schilling was driving toward Camp Walker, as was Maj. Gabriel Bowns, en route to a nearby barbershop. Nearly at once, all three arrived at the scene of the fire to investigate if there was an immediate need for help.
“I knew I had to do something,” said Schilling, Aviation Maintenance Supervisor, Distribution Management Center, 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command. “Yes, it looked dangerous, but I thought ‘we got this’ and we’re going to make sure everyone can get out of there.”
The three had never met before, but were soon running into the building together and working to help as many people as possible while they still had time. Initially, Schilling went up the stairs toward the fire, while Bowns alerted residents on the ground floor and Wilkins called emergency services.
No one in the building was aware it was on fire.
“I was waving my arms, yelling ‘fire’ and a man looked at me, then turned back around,” said Bowns, who heads the G9 interoperability section at 19th ESC. “I had to lift him out of his chair, and move him out of the building.”
Schilling found similar challenges on the upper floors, as residents of the building were either reluctant to leave or didn’t believe that it was on fire. There were some language barrier challenges, but people soon started moving out in rapid succession.
But as their efforts moved towards the top floor, Bowns and Schilling were met with a wall of black smoke, with no part of the floor visible to them.
“I could hear someone screaming, I knew someone was there,” said Schilling. “I crawled up the stairs to the fourth floor, but I still couldn’t see anything.”
That’s when Schilling felt a yank on her Army uniform blouse – it was Bowns stopping her from proceeding into certain danger. The two retreated down the stairs to find city firefighters arriving on the scene in full protective gear, ready to enter the blaze.
Schilling directed rescue personnel to the rear of the building, where the screaming voice she heard before was revealed to be a woman yelling for help from out a window. For her efforts in assisting fire fighters, Schilling was recognized with a certificate of appreciation from Jungbu Fire Station on Nov. 23.
Eventually, everyone inside the building would be brought out to safety. Some were transported to a nearby hospital for treatment, including Schilling. Bowns accompanied Schilling to the hospital and stayed with her until her husband Marcus arrived. The smoke Schilling inhaled on the fourth floor required three days of treatment by hospital staff who praised her as “their hero.”
Schilling and Bowns had military training and experience to fall back on as the dangerous scene unfolded, but Wilkins’ instincts came from somewhere else. As a member of the Scouts BSA Troop 81 in Daegu, Wilkins has been scouting since he was a young Tiger Scout. After calling emergency services, Wilkins assisted with racing through the floors and notifying residents of their danger.
“I’d say it mostly came from scouting,” said Wilkins, an eighth grade student at Daegu Middle-High School on Camp Walker. “The Fire Safety Merit Badge, we learn first aid and emergency preparedness.”
Wilkins’ father, Maj. Wilkins has seen his scouting journey up-close, and currently serves as the Scout Master of Troop 81.
“Honestly, he’s always tried to be that hero kind of kid,” said Maj. Wilkins, who works in the Transportation Operations Branch of the Distribution Management Center, 19th ESC. “He’s always tried to be honorable, and someone who other kids can look up to.”
The Wilkins family gathered with Bowns, Schilling and her husband at the Daegu Metropolitan Police Headquarters on Nov. 24 for their official recognition. Police Commissioner Jin Pyo Kim awarded each of the rescuers a certificate of recognition and a plaque of appreciation.
“The courage and devotion shown by them at the scene of the fire indicate that U.S. military has already become a member of the local community,” said Kim.
The group also visited with Police Chief Kap Soo Yi, Nam-gu Police District, who updated them on the continued good health of the survivors and the status of the building’s arson suspect, who is currently in custody.
Yi thanked the trio for their quick actions, which he thought saved the lives of at least a handful of the residents.
“I’m just glad they all made it out alive,” said Schilling.