Quentin Aukeman was headed home from work on Wednesday morning when he spotted a plume of black smoke rising from a house two streets away from his place in Pahrump.
What happened next was pure instinct.
"It was probably the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life, but faced with the same set of circumstances I'd do it again," he said Thursday from his hospital bed at University Medical Center, where he is being treated for smoke inhalation.
Aukeman, 52, works as a fire captain at the Nevada National Security Site. He was the first firefighter on scene and the first person to enter the burning house in Pahrump where three boys and a woman died.
With no breathing apparatus or other firefighting equipment, Aukeman climbed into the smoke-filled home through a broken window and barely escaped with his life.
Aukeman got to the house on Prospector Lane before the first emergency vehicles arrived.
He saw one neighbor spraying the flames with a garden house while another used a rock to smash one of the windows.
Sharon Broadhead, the 29-year-old mother of the three boys, kept screaming that her babies were trapped inside.
"For a firefighter, that sends chills down your back," Aukeman said. "I couldn't sit by. No firefighter could."
With a boost from a neighbor, he climbed through the window of the room where Broadhead said her 1-year-old son was still in his crib.
"It wasn't hot in there, but it was damned smoky," he said. "I hit the floor and started to belly-crawl, and I was still eating smoke even down there."
Aukeman worked his way over to where the mother said the baby would be. "I couldn't even see the crib, and I was touching it. It was that black in there," he said.
He heard a child crying from somewhere else in the house, but when he yelled for the boy to come toward the sound of his voice, there was no response.
By then, Aukeman knew he was out of time. His body was telling him so.
"The only thing I could compare it to was someone finding themselves being buried alive."
He was inside the house for maybe 15 or 20 seconds, just long enough to find the crib and touch the inside of it a few times, not to conduct a thorough search.
As he turned to leave, he said there was a "brief moment of terror" when he couldn't see the window he had climbed through. Then a small gust of wind momentarily cleared the opening and he lunged through it.
Nye County sheriff's deputies and firefighters from Pahrump Valley Fire-Rescue Service arrived a short time later, and Aukeman pitched in to help them.
That is how he found himself kneeling on the ground, administering CPR to 1-year-old Elliot Broadhead. Minutes earlier, Aukeman had been feeling around blindly for the boy in the smoke. Now he was touching him for the first time.
"That's something I wouldn't care to repeat," he said. "He was in a diaper. It just breaks my heart."
The toddler was pulled from the burning home by a pair of deputies who broke another window where they could reach in and snatch Elliot up. Aukeman said the boy was in the crib the whole time, but he missed him.
"It haunts me that I was that close, but I couldn't get the baby out," he said. "It haunts me that I could hear that other baby crying."
Aukeman said he spent 35 years training for a moment like that. Then it came, "and I wasn't equipped for it," he said with frustration.
Aukeman, 52, is a career firefighter who received his first training in 1976, when he was in the Air Force.
He has worked at the test site for the past 11 years. From his fire station in the middle of the 1,360-square-mile federal reservation, about 65 miles north of Pahrump, he is poised to respond to everything from radioactive spills to traffic accidents on nearby U.S. Highway 95.
Aukeman said he moved to Pahrump about two years ago after close to three decades in Las Vegas. He didn't know the Broadhead family, but he and his wife have friends who live across the street.
"That's the first thing I thought, that it might be them because of the location," he said.
What he did Wednesday morning ran counter to much of his training, which tells him not to enter smoke-filled structures without breathing gear or take other potentially fatal chances that might leave other firefighters with one more victim to rescue.
Pahrump Fire Chief Scott Lewis said hearing Aukeman's story made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, but it shows the sort of commitment firefighters have to their communities.
"His instincts kicked in," Lewis said.
After he had done all he could at the scene on Wednesday, Aukeman was loaded into an ambulance and transported to the hospital in Pahrump, where he expected to get some stitches in his hand where he cut it on the broken window.
Instead, he was loaded into a helicopter and rushed to UMC after he showed signs of smoke inhalation. Doctors told him that with the level of carbon monoxide in his blood, he was lucky he didn't wind up on a ventilator.
Teresa, Aukeman's wife of 21 years, has reason to be angry at her husband for the scare he gave her, but she isn't.
"I'm so proud of him. He thinks about other people before he thinks of himself. He always has," she said from Aukeman's room in UMC's burn unit. "He does that uniform proud."
Aukeman said he hopes to get out of the hospital in another day or two. Then he will have several days to rest before his next 56-hour work shift starts on Feb. 18.
"I'll be ready to go back," he said.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 702-383-0350.