STRATFORD, N.H. – On the afternoon of Feb. 7, Pfc. Liam MacVittie had to make an unscheduled trip to his home in Dover.
He had just finished his shift at the Coös County Nursing Hospital in West Stewartstown. Since January, the young artilleryman has been part of a team of New Hampshire Guardsmen helping the intermediate care facility through a staffing crunch caused by a spike in COVID-19.
Traveling south on Route 3 along the New Hampshire-Vermont border, MacVittie was about 30 minutes into what would have been a three-and-a-half-hour drive when he noticed smoke billowing from a roadside mobile home.
Without hesitation, he turned his car around and headed down a small dirt road in Stratford. The residence was nearly engulfed, and MacVittie noticed a truck in the driveway.
“I assumed someone was inside,” recalled MacVittie, who on any other day would have been relaxing at his team’s hotel, a short commute from the hospital.
After calling 911, he ran up to an enclosed porch and flung open a door. As smoke poured out, he yelled for anyone who might be inside.
Around the same time, a neighbor from next door arrived.
“I ran over and tried going in, but I got beat back from the heat and flames,” said Walter Kostka, who said his sister lived in the mobile home with a man. “So I started pounding on the side with everything I had.”
The pounding and yelling worked.
A woman was able to make her way toward the porch. As she emerged through the smoke, Kostka and MacVittie grabbed her.
With the help of a third bystander, they carried the woman outside to safety.
The fire claimed the life of the other occupant, according to the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal’s office. The cause of the fire is still under investigation. The woman is being treated at a New England burn center.
Four fire departments and an ambulance service responded to the blaze. Afterward, MacVittie and Kostka, no longer strangers, deflected praise onto each other.
“He did something a lot of people wouldn’t do,” Kostka said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have even noticed (the fire).”
Stephen Dennis, an investigator with the fire marshal’s office, agreed. He said had MacVittie not stopped, the woman probably would not have survived.
“I think my military training helped a lot,” MacVittie said. “It helped me keep a clear mind and just focus on what needed to be done. It was just my duty as Guardsman and really just as a human being.”