Softspoken and hesitant to take the podium, 13-year-old Taji Lee stood in front of his peers at Thomas Johnson Middle School and described how he carried his mother “fireman style” away from a fiery blaze inside their Lanham home in November.
The 5-foot-2, 140-pound teen was honored for his bravery in rescuing his mother during an award ceremony at his Lanham middle school Friday and was given the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department’s Fire Chief’s Award by Chief Marc Bashoor, who expressed his appreciation and handed Taji a business card at the close of the ceremony.
“We’re here to honor one of your own,” Bashoor said to the other students at the ceremony. “Maybe one day he’ll be one of our own.”
Around 9:30 p.m. Nov. 29, firefighters received a call for a house fire in the 6300 block of Naval Avenue with the report of a person trapped inside, fire/EMS officials said. The fire, which caused $150,000 in damages, has since been attributed to burning incense that was left unattended, according to officials.
Taji said when he saw smoke inside the home, he ran to his neighbor’s house and told them to call 911, but quickly ran back into his own house where his mother and 8-year-old sister were still inside. His mother has multiple sclerosis, an inflammatory disease that disrupts communication between the nervous system and the spinal cord and limits mobility.
“I didn’t want to think about what might have happened if I didn’t help,” Taji said. “I went and got the fire extinguisher, but it was hard to breathe, and I wasn’t able to put [the fire] out so I decided to pick her up and carry her outside the house.”
Taji said he then went back inside and took his sister out of the house and locked the door on his way out so that no one would try to go back inside.
Taji’s mother, Karen Lee, 48, has limited mobility due to the disease and said she would not have been able to exit the house on her own.
“I’m very proud of my son. He knew I would’ve had to crawl around to try to get out. I remember him screaming, ‘Mommy, I love you. I don’t want you to die,’” said Karen Lee, who said she is 5 feet tall and weighs 100 pounds.
Taji’s father, who was at work when the fire broke out, echoed his wife’s gratitude toward their son.
“I’m extremely proud. He has an incredible mind. He always seeks to do what is right, to do what is good,” said Al-Rahn Lee, 43.
Bashoor encouraged Taji when he is older to attend the Fire Science Cadet Program at Charles Flowers High School in Springdale, where enrolled students have the opportunity to learn fire and emergency medical services skills while still in high school.
Taji said he is interested in architectural engineering, but is looking into becoming a police officer or firefighter in light of his actions during the house fire.
“That’s a successful rescue, not just of a human being, but of a mother,” said Bashoor, adding that when he arrived on scene Taji was sitting in the back of an ambulance with the family.
“He had the calm and courage of a seasoned professional,” Bashoor said.
Karen Lee said the family plans to rebuild the home, which they have lived in for 17 years, and are currently staying in a hotel. She said they have made arrangements to rent a home temporarily while their Lanham house is rebuilt in a year.