VINELAND, New Jersey (WPVI) -- "I had four minutes to be alive...I would have had no minutes without Anthony Capano Jr., so he better get used to being called a hero," said Brian Watkins, who lost his home in a devastating fire last Friday, April 10.
Watkins lived in a house on East Elmer Road in Vineland, New Jersey with his wife, Monica, and their 19-month-old daughter, Vanessa.
Just the day before the fire, he and his toddler filmed an installment in their Facebook video series, "The Vanessa and Daddy Show." It depicts a curious little girl waddling through a maze of toys, books, and furniture with her father.
The following day, Watkins remembers being hardly awake just before 9 a.m. when his wife started yelling for him. Unbeknownst to him, there was a guardian angel at his doorstep warning of an exterior fire quickly making its way indoors.
Anthony "Tony" Capano Jr., now retired, was a firefighter for 35 years in Station 3 of the North Vineland Fire Department.
While making a routine trip to the veterinarian, he noticed smoke coming from a stranger's house. He calls what happened next an act of instinct, one that any of his brothers or sisters in the fire department would have done.
Banging on doors and windows, Capano Jr. got the attention of Watkins' wife. It would only be minutes later when the house was engulfed in flames, bolstered by a gusting wind.
When first responders extinguished the fire, the family of three was safe on the other side.
"He gave my family the opportunity to rebuild our life from the literal ashes," Brian Watkins said.
Capano credits his bloodline for a life of service. His father, Chief Anthony Capano, Sr., served the Vineland Fire Department for over 50 years before his passing in 2003.
Michael Cifaloglio Jr., the Fire Marshal and Capano Jr.'s nephew, was one of the first responders at the Watkins family house fire. He noted the strong winds played a role in the fast spread of the fire, and that his uncle's impulse actions were crucial to saving the family inside.
In a video call with 6abc, he warned that outdoor activities such as bonfires are susceptible to high winds, which could be a catalyst for widespread fires. Also, he implores everyone to check that they have functioning fire alarms.
But Cifaloglio says the biggest challenge facing his department, like many other communities, is the need for volunteer firefighters.
Like volunteer firefighters, many of Vineland's neighbors and strangers felt compelled to help those in need. They have raised over $9,000 on a GoFundMe page to help the Watkins family get back on their feet. They have also donated so much food, toiletries, and clothes that 19-month-old Vanessa was able to dress up and participate in Easter festivities just two days after the fire.
As of Thursday, the cause of the fire is still part of an ongoing investigation.
Meanwhile, Brian Watkins has asked the community to be on the lookout for two tabby cats, Moxie and Leele, who are feared to either be missing or have perished in the fire.
For any concerns or more information, contact the Vineland Fire Department:
110 N. Fourth Street
Vineland, NJ 08360
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Hometown hero, retired firefighter, saves family of three from raging house fire