Hundreds of community members gathered outside Bridgeport Hospital Sunday afternoon cheering at the release of New Haven Firefighter Lt. Samod “Nuke” Rankins, who was listed in critical condition nearly two weeks ago after fighting a home fire.
Rankins, 29, was released from the hospital just days after his birthday.
Fellow firefighters, first responders, family and, friends comprising the crowd, sang “Happy Birthday,” to the firefighter as he walked through the human-tunnel of supporters. Rankins, teary-eyed, embraced and shook hands with various firefighters and friends as he slowly made his way through the outside entrance with the help of a walker.
“[He’s doing] much better,” Leon Bowman, one of Rankins’ cousins said. “He is surrounded by family and [the] New Haven Fire Department, trying to walk more every few hours.”
Rankins’ was injured in a blaze on May 11. He and his fellow firefighters were responding to a call early that morning, around 12:45 a.m., that reported a home fire on Valley Street. The New Haven crew rescued two people out of the home, including a tenant and the 84-year-old homeowner, before firefighters received a report of two firemen “being lost and disoriented.”
Rankins, and 30-year-old Ricardo Torres, were pulled out of the home unconscious. Torres, succumbed to his injuries while Rankins was transported to the burn unit at Bridgeport Hospital and put into a medically induced coma as doctors extracted carbon monoxide from his lungs, his cousin told The Courant.
After a few days, Rankins’ condition was upgraded to “fair,” and he’s been “steadily improving” since, Assistant Fire Chief Justin McCarthy said at a news conference on May 14.
Rankins, a New Haven native, is well-known around his community.
Michael Soares, a teacher at Fair Haven School, said the firefighter frequently volunteered at the Pre-K through eighth-grade campus, whether it was dressing up as Santa Claus or as a guest reader to the younger children.
“I don’t think he ever missed that opportunity [to read a book to the kids],” Soares said. “Pre-COVID, he probably did that three years consecutively. He’s just one of those numbers that the kindergarten teachers call when they need someone to come in and talk to kids, and not just in the capacity of the toy drive or the read aloud, but he’ll come in and talk to kids about what it’s like to be a fireman or what it’s like to be an African American man. He just leads by example. ... It’s usually a bit of a contest of who’s going to have him in their classroom.”
The firefighter has always been a leader, Tanisha Bundy said. As one of her son’s best friends, she said she watched Rankins’ grow up.
“He was the ideal friend that a mother would love her child to be around. ... If I couldn’t find my son when I came home from work, I would go to his house and my son would be over there, and his mother would be so welcoming,” Bundy said. “Samod would be like ‘Oh I told Ronald to make sure he called and let you know he was here!’ He was always encouraging and I have to say, meeting him, I felt safe having my child around him. I didn’t have any doubts.”
Bowman agreed, saying that his cousin, although two decades younger than him, “has the mentality of a 50-year-old and the heart of three people for helping people.” He recalled that he would call Rankins, who seemed “more like my son than a cousin,” before anyone else when he was going through health problems.
“When I was going through dialysis, he was always saying things to cheer me up,” Bowman said. “When you’re on dialysis you get stuck so many times, you want to get it over with, you know? ... He made my think about it. He told me I had to be here for my daughter to get married. He told me ‘You got to be here,’ and he was right.”
He also remembered when Rankins wanted to join the fire department, because it was a way to give back to his community and “reach the younger people even better.”
“He always told me ‘Man I don’t see myself doing nothing else, but doing this and helping people,” Bowman said. “And that is how he is always. Every day he gets up, he has a list of stuff he wants to do before the sun goes down — he’s that type of person. He prays and he checks on his brothers and sisters and the people that we works with.
“He reaches out to young people, they see him, he comes to them positive and is just like ‘Look, are you ready to do this? You’re going to have to put in some hard work because nothing is every easy.’ Then they just respond so well to him,” Bowman said.
After being discharged from the hospital, Rankins was met and embraced by New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker.
“It’s a moment of reflection to think about how there’s heroes everywhere,” Elicker said at Torres’ funeral last Thursday, referring to the two injured firefighters. “Especially the heroes who save someone else’s life and sacrifice themselves. There’s people saving others everyday and they sacrifice their bodies and their lives. It’s an opportunity to think about that.”
Torres’ family and friends laid the 30-year-old firefighter to rest at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven. Members of Rankins’ family, including his mother, were in attendance at the funeral. Rankins was watching online, in uniform, at the hospital.
Jessika Harkay can be reached at email@example.com.