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Great Catches Save 2 Kids

Times Staff Writer

Wilshawnda Watkins held tight to her year-old daughter Tyrea as smoke rolled through their Watts apartment in the early morning darkness Tuesday. Her 9-year-old brother Jermaine clung to her, his ears and hands singed by flames.

Watkins looked out her second-story window and knew instinctively it was the only way out.

“I knew somebody would catch my baby,” she said. “I had it in my heart, that’s why I dropped her.”

Baby Tyrea fell about 15 feet, landing in the waiting arms of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Kim, who reached up along with Watkins’ mother outside the burning apartment in the crime-plagued Imperial Gardens housing project.

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Watkins jumped next, landing on the ground next to the deputy. But Jermaine refused to follow. As flames continued to burn, Kim screamed for him to jump, assuring him that he would catch him.

Jermaine finally leaped, feet first.

“He didn’t even touch the ground. My face was right in his stomach,” Kim said.

By Tuesday afternoon, the seven-year sheriff’s veteran was being hailed as a hero for catching the two children -- even among the residents of Imperial Court, where relations with police have long been chilly.

“I didn’t like the police at first, but they saved us,” Watkins said. “They just happened to be driving by and they saved us, and I thank them. I thank them a whole lot.”

Jermaine was hospitalized with burns to the backs of his ears and hands, but was expected to recover. Kim, meanwhile, sported a swollen lip that would make Rocky Balboa proud, and two of his teeth were fractured from catching the boy.

“It looks like I took a punch from somebody,” Kim, 44, said. “He just popped out of nowhere. Luckily I was there and was able to catch him. I felt like I got hit by a punch to my face, but I was able to hold him.”

The incident began just before 3 a.m. Watkins’ and Jermaine’s mother, Sherry Jenkins, said she heard the smoke detector beeping.

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Jenkins could see smoke and flames, so she jumped out the window of her second-story bedroom and ran around the building to call her children. She was joined by Watkins’ and Jermaine’s father, Alfred Carter, 47, who used a garden hose to try to fight the flames below his children’s window.

Watkins, 17, said she woke to the beeping smoke detector and her mother screaming, “We on fire!” She snatched the covers off and grabbed her baby. She opened her window, but could see flames licking up from the first floor.

“I ran to open my room door, and the stairs were on fire so I couldn’t get down the stairs,” Watkins said. “As I was closing my door my little brother came in and grabbed me like, ‘Don’t leave me!’ ”

Jermaine had been in a serious car crash in November, breaking two legs and an arm. Until recently he had been using a wheelchair and leg braces. But he managed to hobble to his sister’s room.

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Watkins pulled him into the room and he turned on the lights so she could call 911. She then dropped the phone out the window so they could hear the screaming for help outside.

Meanwhile, Kim and partner Deputy Annmarie Matusik, 43, were driving nearby on Imperial Highway when the driver of a big-rig started honking his horn and pointed to the burning apartment.

Kim said Matusik blurted out, “It’s a baby!”

Kim rushed to the building.

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Watkins prepared to drop her little girl to her mother. But Jenkins told her to wait until the flames could be knocked down below.

Kim said Matusik used extinguishers to battle the blaze, so that the baby and the boy would not fall through flames.

“That’s the main reason I was able to get close to the building,” Kim said.

Then Watkins let go of Tyrea, and Kim and Jenkins teamed up to catch the toddler.

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“I told my little brother to grab onto my shirt so we can jump, and he held to my shirt,” Watkins said. “But when I jumped, he let go.”

Jermaine ended up crawling out the window. He was screaming for his father.

“I told him, ‘Just jump, I’m here, I’m here,’ ” Kim said. The boy finally jumped and the deputy caught him, causing his knees to buckle. Kim rolled away from the flames.

The deputy checked Jermaine to make sure he was OK and urged him to lie on his side so he could breathe more easily.

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The deputy said he wasn’t aware he was hurt until firefighters told him he looked awful. He had been concerned about Jermaine, who was covered in soot and coughing badly.

“I was ready to go home, and the firefighters said, ‘No, you can’t. You inhaled smoke,’ ” Kim said. Only after he left the hospital did Kim feel the pain in his teeth. “I called my dentist and said, ‘I think I broke my teeth.’ ”

Back at the burned-out unit, the family prepared to be moved to another apartment. Firefighters said it appeared that their Christmas tree was the source of an electrical malfunction that started the fire.

Watkins’ and Jermaine’s older sister, Davina Jenkins, 23, said she was glad her little brother was right about one prediction. “He told us he was going to be walking by Christmas,” she said. “And sure enough, he’s not walking so good, but he was able to wobble his way to my sister’s room.”

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For his part, Kim said he’s glad he was in the right place at the right time. The deputy immigrated from South Korea 17 years ago and always dreamed of being a lawman.

“It’s the only job I ever wanted all my life,” the married father of two said. “I always wanted to help people.”

The deputies’ supervisor, Capt. Jacques La Berge, said that “to the deputies, it’s just doing their job. They think they did what anybody else would have done.”


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