A Scout Is Brave

In the Face of Danger

Amal Centers has only one regret about the people he helped rescue from the hotel fire; he never learned their names.

For demonstrating unusual heroism in saving lives at considerable risk to himself, Amal E. Centers Jr. was awarded the Boy Scouts of America's Honor Medal.

On the afternoon of April 30, 1997, 17-year-old Eagle Scout Amal E. Centers Jr. and a friend were driving home from picking up their prom tuxedos when they noticed a tower of black smoke reaching into the sky. As they moved closer, they saw a chilling sight: clouds of smoke billowing from the upper floors of a five-story hotel.

Even though the blaze had just started, already the scene outside the hotel was chaotic. But what caught Centers' attention through the throng of people was the figure of a man collapsed on the ground. He was gasping for breath, suffering from smoke inhalation.

Centers parked the car and rushed to check on the man. By the time Centers reached him, he had stopped breathing. Calling on the first aid training he received during 12 years as a Scout, Centers checked the air passage for obstructions, turned the man's head to the side, and performed a forward thrust on the abdomen. Balls of soot were ejected from the man's mouth with each thrust, but he was soon able to breathe.

As he continued to care for the man, Centers overheard a security guard say two managers were still inside the hotel.

Even though the fire raged above, Centers knew the real enemy was the smoke. If they didn't get out soon, they might be killed. The fire department had been called but hadn't arrived, and no one seemed willing to go in after the men.

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Centers says what he did next he did on instinct. He left the man he had revived with a bystander and made his way into the hotel.

Even though the fire was on the upper levels, a haze of smoke had already filtered down to the first floor. He moved quickly, searching for the men. He found the first manager on a phone trying to call the fire department. "Get out! We've already called the fire department," he shouted. When Centers asked about the second manager, the first manager said that he had gone upstairs and hadn't come back.

Centers found the stairwell and carefully climbed the stairs. The smoke became thicker with each step he took.

Later, Amal's mother, Judy Centers, would be amazed at what Amal had done. Not because she doubted his ability. Never. After all, he was an Eagle Scout with double palms, was an assistant Scoutmaster, held a part-time job, and was captain of his high school football team. No, she was surprised because Amal had been battling bronchial asthma almost all of his life. What others might consider a handicap never slowed Amal down. "He's not a quitter," she says.

When Centers reached the top of the fourth flight of stairs, he heard banging on the stairwell door. He tried to open it, but it was jammed.

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Centers yelled for whoever was behind the door to stand back and began kicking the door. After several blows, it came ajar. Centers found the second manager inside the hallway, coughing and blinded by the smoke. As they turned to leave, a dense wave of black smoke engulfed them. "I could barely see a foot in front of me," he says.

Centers took off his shirt and wrapped it around the man's head so he could breathe more easily. Then they escaped back down the stairwell.

Back on the ground floor Centers found the first manager still on the phone. "I'm not going to leave you in here." he told the manager. "You have to leave now!"

The fire department was arriving by the time Centers made it back outside with the two managers. After attending to the manager with smoke inhalation, Centers began with crowd control.

Looking back, Centers is still surprised that anyone listened to a teenager off the street. "I don't know why peopled listened, but they did," he says.

A man in the crowd challenged Centers: "Why should we listen to you? Who are you?"

"I'm a Scout," Centers replied.

A television reporter at the scene was also unhappy about being asked to get back after she had moved too close to the building.

"She said 'I'm doing a story,' and I said, 'It might be your job, but your safety is more important right now,'" he recounts. Moments after she moved back, glass and burning debris from the building rained down just feet from where the reporter had been standing.

Amal Centers Sr., Amal Centers Jr., and Judy Centers. "My parents played a very big role in what I've done in Scouting," says Amal. "They kept urging me to do my best. I can't thank them enough."

For weeks afterward, Centers says, he would catch himself daydreaming about the fire. He would think about the people he helped. His only regret is that he didn't learn their names.

Centers says he knows what he did was dangerous, but he's sure there would have been fatalities if he hadn't acted.

For demonstrating unusual heroism in saving or attempting to save a life at considerable risk to himself, Amal E. Centers Jr. was awarded the Boy Scouts of America's Honor Medal. The Chicago City Council also passed a resolution recognizing his actions and those of his friend.

Next to his parents, Centers says, Scouting has been the biggest influence in his life. Both of his parents have been involved in Scouting. His father is currently an assistant Scoutmaster.

"My parents played a very big role in what I've done in Scouting," he says.

"They kept urging me to do my best. If it hadn't been for them, I wouldn't be where I am. I can't thank them enough."

Centers is now studying electrical engineering at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois.