Alpharetta-- To look at him, 12-year-old Hunter Eckstrom doesn't appear to have a whole lot of power stored up in his small frame. But when the time was right, he sure had enough to get the job done.On June 25, Eckstrom kicked open the locked front door of his neighbor's burning house to save her dog, Bella. As if that wasn't enough, just seconds after pulling the pooch from an upstairs bedroom of the house on Village Green Way, the air conditioner in the duplex exploded, blowing a hole right through the ceiling and floor of the room he'd just escaped.Just a few seconds difference, and this would be a tale of tragedy, not heroism."We're very proud of him," said Eckstrom's mother, Linda. "He's got such a great big heart for others."And the imminent danger of the split-second decision? Linda and her husband, Philip, look back with thanks that their youngest son wasn't caught in the flames or subsequent blast."He better not ever do that again," said Linda.
The story began on a muggy June afternoon. Hunter and Philip were in a neighbor's yard cleaning up some trees – Hunter's summer job – when a neighbor boy asked if they had a hose. It turns out his house was on fire.Philip immediately grabbed a hose and started trying to spray the back of the duplex, but the flames were already spreading to the whole structure and threatening to catch nearby trees."It was really involved at that time," he said.While watching the fire, Hunter said it suddenly dawned on him that Susan Ingui's dog and three cats were probably trapped inside. The other resident of the duplex, she was a friend to the Eckstroms and he often cut her grass.Hunter and Philip ran to the front of the house and surveyed the situation. The next thing he knew, Philip was watching his boy kick at the door and rush in."It just happened within a split second," he said. After the initial shock wore off, both Eckstroms knew their son, who wants to join the military and loves war documentaries and specials on the Navy SEALS, made the choice he thought was right.
"He's got his boots, and he's such a strong little guy," said Linda. "He just went right in." Hunter said he was able to grab Ingui's dog, Bella, out of her bedroom. He searched for her three cats, but to no avail. He ran out in the nick of time.
"As soon as I got out the kid's [the young neighbor who initially alerted the Eckstroms to the blaze] side exploded," said Hunter.The flame-scarred building still bears the aftermath of the blast. The attic area where the air conditioning unit was housed bends out, and a clear view duplex's innards is available.Still thinking fast, Hunter took the dog to his house, got it food and water, and shut it in the bathroom.
He then called Ingui to give her the bad news."He's just such a smart boy, and he wanted to make sure Bella was safe," said Ingui, who is now at the Doubletree Hotel with her pets. Her three cats were found later in the week – they had all escaped – and the family is doing just fine in the pet-friendly hotel.
The thankful neighbor said she was glad young Hunter thought enough of her pet to risk his life to save it."I lost a dog last July, and just got Bella in November," she said. "It would have killed me to lose another dog – they're like my children."Linda Eckstrom said that care for animals comes from the family's ownership of pets, and Hunter's own big heart."The police commended him when they came," she said. "But Hunter said, 'No, it's OK, you're supposed to do that."
Lt. C. Garner of the Alpharetta Police Department was one of those officers struck by Eckstrom's actions. That day, he gave the pre-teen his card and said to call him when he was old enough to join the Police Explorers, a law enforcement youth group."He impressed me as a smart young man who is dedicated to where he lives," said Garner, who didn't realize that Eckstrom had kicked the door down to get to the pets until contacted for this article. "He seems like a real good kid all around."Like Eckstrom's parents, Garner was most enthusiastic that in the year 2008, a kid could still choose the right path without thinking about it."A lot of youth nowadays wouldn't take that initiative," he said.