Two Navy recruiters earn a medal for running into a burning Arlington apartment to save a disabled woman

DALLAS -- Mamie McKnight celebrated her 65th birthday Wednesday with a catfish dinner.

Her son gives all the credit for that life landmark to two young sailors, who one morning last March saw flames from their recruiting station on North Collins Street in Arlington, ran toward the fire and pulled her out of a burning apartment building.

"She was asleep," said John McKnight, who helps care for his disabled mother. "She would have been dead from smoke inhalation if they hadn't shown up."

On that, there is no dispute.

The Arlington Fire Department told Mayor Robert Cluck "that lady would not have survived" without the actions of Petty Officers Matthew Castleberry and Brandon Gonzalez, who were minutes ahead of the first fire engine.

On Thursday, Rear Adm. Craig Faller pinned a Navy and Marine Corps Medal on each of the men, the highest award the service can give for noncombat heroism. Very few sailors or Marines receive the medal, which is higher than the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

"I've never presented one in 27 years," said Faller, who came to the Navy's district recruiting office in Dallas for the ceremony.

Castleberry, 25, an Arlington native back home for a recruiting tour, described the attention showered on him as "surreal" but "pretty cool."

"It took a lot of time and effort to put this together, just for us," he said.

About 9 a.m. on March 20, 2009, Castleberry and Gonzalez, 31, a Grand Prairie native, had shown up to work at their recruiting station. Castleberry is an aviation mechanic who has done three deployments on aircraft carriers. Gonzalez serves as a sonar technician aboard submarines.

"We were going to head out, hit the streets and see what we could find," Gonzalez said.

They remarked to Chief Petty Officer Aaron Wilson that smoke was coming from an apartment building across the street.

"I told them it was probably someone barbecuing," Wilson said.

Within a few minutes, flames were shooting out of the roof. Castleberry and Gonzalez took off across Collins Street. Wilson called 911.

After leaping the iron fence around the complex, Gonzalez started banging on doors. Castleberry headed for the apartment next to where the flames were the worst.

"I jumped into her balcony," he said. "I was yelling, and I could hear her in there. But she wouldn't come to the door."

He jumped back over the patio fence and ran to Mamie McKnight's front door, which, luckily, was unlocked. Wicked black smoke poured out and made Castleberry gag. He grabbed a piece of clothing off the floor and held it to his face.

As he found her wheelchair, Gonzalez came running into the apartment, having seen Castleberry go in by himself. They helped her into the wheelchair and got her into the parking lot.

Then they banged on more doors until they were satisfied that everyone was out. Within minutes, firetrucks arrived, and an ambulance took McKnight to a hospital.

Gonzalez and Castleberry, though, went back to work.

"My lungs hurt for the rest of the day, but it wasn't anything major," Castleberry said.

John McKnight said the Fire Department determined that a child playing in an adjacent apartment had accidentally started the fire with a lighter.

His mother, who worked for General Motors for 30 years, had hoped to attend the medals ceremony. But she was too nervous about getting out in the snow.

As thrilled as John McKnight is with the medals for Castleberry and Gonzalez, who were nominated by Wilson, their supervisor, he isn't done with his one-man gratitude campaign.

He has written to U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, Gov. Rick Perry, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, Chief Justice John Roberts and the White House.

He's even e-mailed Oprah.

"I wrote letters to all those people asking them if they knew what kind of character it takes to run into a fire," he said. "These guys need to be recognized for what they did."

CHRIS VAUGHN, 817-390-7547