FedEx delivery driver John Hillman was greeted with a pleasant surprise when he arrived at work Friday -- a thank you from a woman he has never met.
Eileen Bernat presented Hillman a $600 gift card and a heartfelt hug for saving her son and pets from her burning Martinez home Sept. 8.
"It was just a miracle," said Bernat, who was in Arizona at the time. "He was supposed to be there at that time. ... I work at Doctors Hospital. I do burn patients all the time, I know what happens. So between the smoke inhalation and the burning, it is a miracle (my son Tim) got out."
Hillman, 26, said he was delivering a package to Bernat's neighbor on Cactus Trail about 3:45 p.m. when the neighbor saw that the two-story home was on fire. The neighbor called 911 while Hillman ran to the home.
Hillman opened the unlocked door and yelled to alert Tim Bernat, who was sleeping upstairs, that the house was on fire. He also rescued Eileen Bernat's large dog and two cats.
"I didn't think it was a big deal," Hillman said. "I really didn't think about it a whole lot."
But the Bernats have thought about that day a lot.
"There's no telling what would have happened," Tim Bernat said.
The fire, which started near a small storage shed under the back deck, did extensive damage to the home. A few clothing items and some photos were the only items salvaged, Eileen Bernat said. The house will be demolished and rebuilt.
Tim Bernat said he was frazzled that afternoon and doesn't remember Hillman much other than the yelling that woke him.
Hillman said once Tim Bernat and the animals were outside and safe, he continued his delivery route before firefighters arrived.
He returned later that day to check on Tim Bernat.
Eileen Bernat said her colleagues in the hospital laboratory kept asking what she needed. But since insurance covered all her needs, she said, she planned to give Hillman a thank-you gift.
So the lab workers collected $445, and Bernat presented Hillman with a $600 gift card.
"Nothing I can give you can replace what you did," Bernat said as she hugged Hillman in front of his co-workers in the warehouse of the FedEx distribution center on Bertram Road in Augusta.
Valarie Hall, Hillman's supervisor, described him as "a good kid." She also said he's not the first delivery driver to take lifesaving actions. One rescued a car accident victim, and another saved someone from a burning home several years ago.
"It happens," Hall said. "And like John, they don't realize it, they just do it."
Bernat said she hasn't cried about the incident or losing her home because her son is fine and that's all that matters.
But she was overcome with tears as she met Hillman for the first time.
"You'll never know," Bernat said as she hugged Hillman. "Thank you so much."
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