A quick-thinking neighbour is being credited with saving lives in a fatal housefire earlier this week in Pelican Narrows.

Larry Custer had just let his dog out early Saturday, when he realized he could smell smoke.

Larry Custer Pelican Narrows fire

People in Pelican Narrows are crediting Larry Custer with rescuing three people from a fatal house fire. (Courtesy of Rose Michel)

"I looked up and the house was on fire," said Custer. "The fire was coming out of the roof. There was flames coming out of there and lots of smoke out of the living room window." 

Kicked open front door

He ran to the single-storey house, kicked the front door open and, through heavy smoke, found Eleanor Ballantyne trying to cover her daughter with a blanket. At that point, the girl had already suffered severe burns from the waist down.

Custer hustled Ballantyne, her daughter and her son outside. He then pushed through heavy smoke to check the home's four bedrooms. Finding no one, he loaded Ballantyne and her daughter Hope into his vehicle and drove them to the hospital. 

The burns were so severe, the girl was airlifted to Flin Flon, then Winnipeg. Doctors expect it will take at least three months for her to recover.

Grim news

Custer said he was shocked when he returned from the hospital, to even grimmer news.

"I came back right away and that's when the little boy told me there was somebody else in there," said Custer. "I guess some kids were up in the attic sleeping, that's what he said, and they had a candle in there."

Solomon Ballantyne, 10, and his nine-year old brother Josiah Ballantyne died in the fire. 

"Right now it's a tremendous, overwhelming feeling of sadness in the community," said Rose Michel, another neighbour. She said one of the dead boys would have celebrated a birthday this week.

Memorial tributes

Michel said members of the northern Cree community held a radio pledge drive to raise money and household donations for the family. Staff at the boys' school also held memorial tributes for them this week.

Custer said he can't erase the fire from his mind. He is related to the Ballantyne family, and said the children next door called him 'uncle'. For years, he watched them grow up.

"I kept picturing when I went inside, I couldn't find anything. I kept thinking to myself I should have checked a little more," he said.

Michel and others in the community said they owe Custer a debt of gratitude.

"For me personally I think he's a hero," said Michel. "If he hadn't run to the house when he did that mother and daughter would not have made it."