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‘No other choice’: Dad caught kids as they jumped from fire, but pregnant wife landed hard

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published March 17, 2017

Andrew Engelking doesn't know exactly how he was able to catch his kids and break the fall of his pregnant wife as they leapt from their third-floor Spenard apartment to escape a deadly fire that destroyed the building a month ago.

With one of his legs broken from his own leap to the ground, he said, it must have been the adrenaline. Or maybe, he now believes, it was a higher power.

Whatever led him to rescue his family, he's still coping with the aftermath. His new daughter, Liberty, was delivered prematurely by emergency cesarean section the day of the fire and remains hospitalized in intensive care in Anchorage. His wife, Katie McClain-Engelking, was also still hospitalized as of Friday, in Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for burn treatment.

"I myself struggle with the whole higher being thing, but I think now I'm on the other side of the fence," he said. "I think there's definitely something out there that was looking out for us that night because I don't know how I was able to catch them with my leg like that."

Andrew Engelking said he has repeatedly asked himself whether he could’ve done anything differently on the night his family escaped a deadly fire through a third-floor window. “I’ve started to accept that my family’s alive. We’re all alive. And we have a long road ahead of us, but we’re here,” he said. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Weeks after the fire, sitting in a reclining chair in the newborn intensive care unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center, he held his new daughter, Liberty. She was born after only 26 weeks in the womb, more than two months short of full term.

Liberty's reddish limbs waved about as her father looked down at her. Cords attached to monitors kept a constant measure of her vitals. The wires stretched from her small body toward the incubator where she spends her days.

The incubator is usually covered with a blanket to make sure she doesn't get too much stimulation. The other day, Engelking said, she opened one of her eyes.

"We all just want you home," he told her.

For weeks after the fire, Katie McClain-Engelking saw Liberty only through a webcam from her own hospital room in Seattle.

Andrew Engelking holds his daughter, Liberty, at the newborn intensive care unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center on March 10. Liberty was born by emergency C-section after Engelking’s wife, Katie McClain-Engelking, escaped a fire by jumping from a third floor window. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

'No other choice'

Engelking and his family lived in unit 303 at the Royal Suite Apartments, not far from where the flames started early in the morning on Feb. 15.

Anchorage police have since said they are treating the fire as arson and, with three killed, a homicide.

Engelking heard the fire alarm that early morning but didn't realize it was for real.

"We had so many problems with false alarms that when the alarm went off, I didn't think anything of it," he said.

But then his wife heard commotion outside, he said.

"I was just thinking people probably got in fights," Engelking said. He and his family had been living in the apartment complex since December, he said.

"I grabbed my pistol, went to the door. As soon as I twisted the door handle, the door blew me back to my butt. There were flames everywhere."

After he and his family escaped from a fire at Royal Suite Apartments, Andrew Engelking captured a photo of the deadly scene. (Andrew Engelking photo)

He kicked the door shut and locked it. He told his family they would have to go out a window.

He busted the glass and cleaned the shards in the frame using a curtain. One of his fingers was cut deeply by glass.

He decided to jump first so he could catch the others. Before he leapt, he told his wife she would have to throw him the kids, 2-year-old Linden and 10-year-old Logan.

"As soon as I hit the ground, it sounded like a clap," Engelking said. "I knew my leg was broken, no question."

Balancing mostly on his left leg, Engelking focused on catching the kids. McClain-Engelking dropped Linden.

"I couldn't have asked for a better catch," Engelking said. "I set him to the side, and I told my 10-year-old (stepson), 'Buddy, you gotta jump and push off.' I caught him, I handed him the 2-year-old and said, 'Go face the bowling alley and keep your brother covered.' "

Four members of the Engelking family were home at apartment 303 when fire spread through Royal Suite Apartments. All escaped the building from the third floor window. The fire killed three people and destroyed much of Royal Suite Apartments in February 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Then it was time for McClain-Engelking to make the leap. By then, Engelking said, the apartment itself was on fire.

He hoped she would land backward as he caught her, but he ended up breaking her fall rather than catching her. She landed on him, Engelking said, and the two collapsed.

She was burned and had a broken spine from the fall, but she was still able to walk, Engelking said.

"Katie turned into mama bear and did (an) amazing thing while being burned in the fire," he said.

Doctors at Providence wanted to send McClain-Engelking to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for burn treatment — but they were concerned about her making that flight while pregnant.

So she underwent an emergency C-section in Anchorage. Then, she was flown to Harborview, where doctors fused her spine back together, Engelking said.

McClain-Engelking didn't want to be interviewed, according to a family member reached over the phone last week at Harborview. She was in "satisfactory condition" at Harborview last week, according to hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg. Engelking said there's no certain timeline for his wife to come home, but he thought it would be "soon." She was still in Harborview Friday.

A month after the fire, much of Royal Suite Apartments is in ruins. Fire killed three people and destroyed much of Royal Suite Apartments in February 2017. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

'A day at a time'

In Anchorage, Engelking and the kids — a third, 14-year-old Lucas, was at a friend's house at the time of the fire — are staying with friends. Engelking spends as much time as he can at Providence with Liberty.

"I know you're ready for all this stuff to just be off of you, aren't you," he said to his daughter, who was draped in a white blanket dotted with pink butterflies. In addition to the wires regulating her pulse and respiration, she also needs a device that helps to keep her lungs open and expanding.

On March 10, she weighed a little more than 2 pounds.

"Wow," Engelking said when he entered her room that day and looked at her chart. "She put on some weight." He'd last seen her two days prior.

Andrew Engelking holds his daughter, Liberty, at the newborn intensive care unit at Providence Alaska Medical Center on March 10. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

His wife made the final choice on the name while she was still had a tube through her throat, Engelking said. "She wrote 'Liberty' on a dry erase board with two exclamation marks and showed it to me (over the webcam)."

He's happy that everyone is alive and "seems to be getting better day by day," but it has not been easy. On top of worrying about his wife and newborn and the family's housing situation, he's still recovering from his own injuries and uses crutches to get around. His broken tibia was treated at Providence, and he said now there's "all sorts of rods and pins in it." He's eager for his wife to get back so the family can be together again.

"I take everything a day at a time," Engelking said. "I hate that phrase, but I have no choice … It's too overwhelming to look ahead."

Four members of the Engelking family were home when fire destroyed their apartment building, forcing them to escape through a third-floor window. From left are Andrew Engelking, Linden Engelking, 2, Logan McClain, 10, and Lucas McClain, 14. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

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