PERRYVILLE, Mo. -- How differently things might have turned out if Fred Reinwald hadn't left his hat on Merle Nipper's coffee table.
When Nipper stopped by Reinwald's house on Route D near Longtown to return the baseball cap Wednesday afternoon, he found the basement of the house on fire and Reinwald and his wife, Kathleen, trapped in the basement.
Because of that hat, Nipper saved their lives.
Reinwald, 84, and his 82-year-old wife had come by Nipper's home Wednesday morning to use the telephone. Nipper said the couple's phone had quit working. A newly installed furnace wasn't working either, and they needed to call a repairman. Nipper's wife made a pot of coffee and the two couples, who have been neighbors for 16 years, sat awhile and talked before the older couple went home.
"They had a wood burner in the basement," Nipper said, "and they were going to crank it up."
After they left, Nipper noticed Reinwald's baseball cap on the coffee table and made a mental note to return it later in the day. Just before 2 p.m., Nipper picked up the hat and drove the mile and a half to Reinwald's house. Although their car was in the driveway, no one answered the door. So Nipper nudged the back door open.
"The smoke hit me," Nipper said. "It was so thick I couldn't see a foot in front of me."
He said he began calling for the couple and could hear Kathleen Reinwald call out, "We're in the basement. Fred's burnt."
Nipper, 55, made seven trips into the house to rescue the couple.
By the time Nipper entered, the house was filled with smoke and flames were building up, said Jared Unterreiner, chief of the East Perry County Rural Fire Department in Farrar, Mo. The fire apparently started at the wood-burning stove in the basement, he said.
Nipper said on his third trip from the back door downstairs to the basement, he found Kathleen Reinwald and brought her to safety. Then he remembered an outdoor entrance to the basement. When he entered that door, he found that she had returned to help find her husband, and he brought her out again.
Throughout the effort, Nipper said he kept going outside to get a gulp of fresh air before resuming his search. On the last trip in, he coaxed Fred Reinwald toward the sound of his voice and led him outside, his legs badly burned.
Only after he got the couple settled in the yard and admonished them to stay put was he able to rush back home and call 911.
Unterreiner said that he does not recommend anyone rush into a burning building like Nipper did because he could have been overcome by the smoke.
But under the circumstances ... . "If it was me, I would have done the same thing," Unterreiner said.
Nipper said he went to bed that night with a splitting headache. Nipper said he should have known not to run into a burning building. He is retired from Menard Correctional Center, where he routinely was given instruction about how to respond to a fire.
"I didn't think of it until it was all over," he admitted. "All I could think about was getting those people out."
Nipper insists that he is not a hero.
"The heroes are the firefighters," he said.
Unterreiner said he is proud of the firefighters who responded and put the fire out quickly enough that it saved the Reinwalds' home. But he thinks the real hero is Nipper.
"He went above and beyond," he said.
Fred and Kathleen Reinwald were taken to Perry County Memorial Hospital, where Kathleen was treated for smoke inhalation, Unterreiner said. Fred was flown to the burn unit at St. Mary's Hospital in St. Louis. He has second- and third-degree burns on his legs.
335-6611, extension 160