12-Year Old Dies in Fire Trying to Save His Father

Tragedy has its own way of waking us to some of the harsh realities of life. Such is the case in the life of 12-year-old Sanford Harling who heroically ran back into his house in a raging fire to rescue his Dad.

Man Man ran back inside

Even though Sanford’s Dad got out by jumping out of a second story window, his son Sanford or ‘Man Man’ as he is called did not get out. He had amazing courage as he had first escaped the fire with his family and then ran back in to find and help his Dad. I have republished the article from the Philadelphia Inquirer ( by Julie Shaw. As you will see in the article this young man was a student at Lakeside School, so his death has significantly impacted our staff and students. The article follows.

Sanford ‘Man Man’ Harling, 12, died after he ran into his burning home to try to save his father, Sanford Harling, who was trapped upstairs.

Terrance Phillips was in the third-floor bedroom of his Norristown home Friday morning when he smelled smoke, then opened the door and knew there was trouble.

The 23-year-old climbed out the window to the roof, where he grabbed a thick tree branch and jumped down onto a second roof before leaping to the ground.

Meanwhile, his little brother, 12-year-old Sanford Harling III, nicknamed “Man Man,” had made it out of the house – where orange flames shot out through first-floor windows – with his mother and sister through a back door.

Then he went back in by himself.

The boy, youngest of six siblings, thought his father was still inside. He rushed into the three-story brick duplex on the 1000 block of Markley Street about 9 a.m. Friday morning to save Sanford Harling Jr., who was recovering from hip-replacement surgery.

But the boy didn’t know that while the house was on fire, his 58-year-old father had jumped from a second-floor window, Phillips said.

And Man Man never made it out.

“If he could save someone in need, if he could help someone, he would,” Phillips said of his younger brother in a phone interview Saturday.

“That’s the type of person he is. He’s a hero. That’s what heroes do.”

Sanford lived in the house with four family members – his mother, Dana Henderson, 43; a 14-year-old sister; his father; and Phillips. Three other siblings lived outside the house.

Phillips said family members waited outside as firefighters and other rescue workers went in to try to find his brother.

“I’m an optimistic person,” he said. “My mind-set was, ‘Maybe they got him.’”

He didn’t recall how long they waited before being told Sanford died in the fire.

“It’s a tragedy,” Phillips said. “It’s a lot of emotions right now.”

He added: “I know my little sister and my mom are going through the worst of it.”

The family Saturday was staying at a hotel through the assistance of the American Red Cross.

Kenneth Peterson, 62, Sanford’s maternal grandfather, rushed to the house from his Norristown home after he got a call that the house was burning.

“It’s very hard, emotionally draining,” Peterson said Saturday. “It’s very hard to keep things going.

“Man Man ran back in there.”

Peterson said his son-in-law fractured his ribs and might have broken his hip from the second-floor jump. The father was taken to Paoli Hospital Friday and underwent surgery Saturday morning, Peterson said. The surgery went “so far OK,” he said.

The grandfather described his grandson, a seventh-grader at Lakeside School in North Wales, as “happy go-lucky, fun, a lovable, big teddy bear.”

“Everybody loved him,” he said. “He was a great friend, great family member, he was a little boy. He was loved. He loved sports and video games.”

Sanford played football with the Norristown Youth Eagles football team and played basketball with a West Norriton youth team, Peterson said.

Norristown Councilman Hakim Jones, who knew the young Sanford through after-school programs and the Eagles youth football team, recalled the boy as “very outgoing”and as “a child of faith.”

“He was always working to motivate his teammates,” said Jones, who said he is a community relations board member and former coach of the football team. Sanford “was part of a really close-knit family who was very well-liked in the Norristown community,” Jones said.

As of Saturday afternoon, a GoFundMe page set up by the Norristown Youth Eagles football team to support the family had raised more than $23,000.

Phillips said he believed the cause of the fire was electrical because he had initially smelled smoke from his bedroom-floor heating vent.

The Norristown Fire Department on Friday said the cause of the fire was still under investigation.

“It was a tragic day in Norristown as a young [boy] runs back into a burning home to find his father,” the department’s website said.

“Little did he know his father was able to escape the flames from a second-floor window. Please remember to NEVER return to a burning building. Call 911 and let the firefighters handle the emergency with the proper equipment.”

We will greatly miss this courageous young man at Lakeside. 

The coming days will be extremely difficult for his family, his teacher, his friends and all those he touched in his life. We will keep his family in our thoughts and prayers as they grieve the loss of ‘Man Man!’

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network


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