NEWARK — A watchful neighbor saved the lives of a young couple and their 1-year-old son early Sunday morning in the unincorporated town of Newark in northern Kearney County.

Gary Lea, 31, his wife Whitney, 28, and their son were sleeping inside their two-story house at 42 Newark St. around 6 a.m. when their neighbor, Pete Patsios, barged in yelling. Lea had his alarm set for 6:30 a.m., and at first thought Patsios was an intruder.

“He came running into the entryway of the house. I couldn’t make out what he was saying, so I just started running at him. He was trying to scream, ‘I’m your neighbor. There’s a fire,’” Lea said.

Lea saw the flames coming from the corner of the house, went upstairs to get his son from his crib and to wake up his wife.

“I just yanked him out of his crib,” Lea said.

Once outside, Lea and Patsios hooked up a garden hose and Patsios began fighting the flames, while Lea went back inside to retrieve animals. The Leas’ daughters, ages 5 and 10, were staying overnight with family.

Back outside, Lea and Patsios extinguished most of the flames.

“The fire was pretty much knocked down when we got there,” said Jim Tacha, fire chief of the Kearney Volunteer Fire Department. “If he (Patsios) wouldn’t have done that, damage could’ve been a lot more substantial.”

When firefighters arrived, they finished extinguishing the fire that had moved to the rafters, Lea said.

An investigation by firefighters revealed the fire started from a discarded cigarette that landed in a cardboard box on the deck of the house. The cigarette ignited the cardboard, caught the deck on fire, then spread up the house’s siding.

Lea said, “As bad as that wind was blowing I was really surprised that we got it put out with a hose. I mean, those flames were roaring. That wind was blowing so bad.”

“All I had on was pajama pants and socks and I’m standing on the deck and it’s burning and I can’t breathe, there’s so much smoke back-swirling, it was like, ‘I hope it’s out,’ he said, “I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

Married in July, the Leas bought their house just before Christmas at Newark, an unincorporated town east of Fort Kearny on Highway 50A, and west of U.S. Highway 10.

Today, Lea was meeting with an insurance agent and a cleaning service. The fire damaged a portion of the roof, windows, a bathroom, and caused smoke damage, making it unlivable.

Tacha estimated damage to the house at $25,000. The state Fire Marshal told KVFD that it wasn’t uncommon for Lea to discard his cigarette near the house.

Despite the damage Lea is grateful his family is OK, and for his neighbor.

“We’re very thankful for him,” he said.

Two pumper trucks, three tankers, a grass rig and a utility vehicle, along with 34 firefighters, responded to the scene.