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Man, his rescuer were fortunate to survive blaze
Survivors of Nov. fire reflect on how lives were changed since incident
Harold Johnson Jr. is in good spirits and looking forward to completing his recovery from a Nov. 21 fire that destroyed his house on Purina Drive in Gainesville. He’s been living at New Horizons North since the incident, from which Tray Ross, a 20-year-old ex-volunteer firefighter, rescued him.

It's been a month of change for the Gainesville man who was pulled from his burning home in November and for his 20-year-old savior.

Tray Ross, an ex-volunteer firefighter, carried Harold Johnson Jr., a 76-year-old Gainesville resident who is blind, from his burning home at 1190 Purina Drive.

The Nov. 21 fire and its outcome have proven to have a profound impact on the two men, who, according to fire officials, were lucky to have survived.

In a community room at the New Horizons North nursing home in Gainesville, Johnson sits in a wheelchair at a table next to his son, Victor Lamar Johnson, trying to recall what happened that night.

The soft-spoken elder Johnson remembers little of when a fire engulfed his home and burned it to the ground.

He remembers Ross, who was working at a neighboring poultry plant, approaching the house and asking if anyone was inside.

He remembers his reply: "Yeah. Get me out of here please."

Ross entered the house through the unlocked front door.

By that point, the fire was causing heavy smoke.

Ross told Johnson to lay low. The blind Johnson instructed Ross, who could see very little with the smoke, on how to reach him in the kitchen at the back of the house.

When Ross reached him, he carried him to safety.

Both were treated by medics and taken by ambulance to the Northeast Georgia Medical Center to be treated for smoke inhalation.

Ross left shortly after with a clean bill of health. Johnson remained at the hospital through Thanksgiving and for several weeks.

The two met again when Johnson was still in the hospital - giving him and his family a chance to thank Ross in person.

Since the fire, the changes have been most pronounced for Johnson.

His home and nearly all of his possessions, save some pictures, jewelry and a few other items, were lost.

After weeks in the hospital recovering from smoke-related issues and problems with his heart, Johnson is continuing his recovery at New Horizons North.

Instead of life spent mostly alone save regular visits from family and a nurse, Johnson is now attended to around the clock.

"He's getting all the attention he can absorb," Johnson's son said.

It hasn't always been an easy transition.

In Johnson's old home, he knew where everything was and how to get to it despite his blindness.

Now, he is getting used to new surroundings.

It can be unsettling for the elder Johnson, his son said, when strangers or staff come in and out of his room unannounced, since he can't tell who it is.

Still Johnson calls the facility "pretty nice" with three hot meals served to him every day.

Johnson and his family are planning for New Horizons to be a temporary stop on his journey to living more independently once again.

The younger Johnson said his father is working toward living in apartment-style housing, with regular assistance from a nurse - similar to the setup he had before his house burned.

"Right now, he's getting the proper treatment so he can get better," Johnson's son said.

Before glaucoma took away his sight, Johnson was a painter and plasterer in the family business. The family is counting on his old work ethic and desire to live more independently in fueling him toward recovery.

Changes for Ross have been less jarring than those for Johnson.

He still lives at the same place and has the same job.

However, the aftermath of the rescue has changed things for Ross, possibly forever.

Ross' dream is to become a professional firefighter. Until recently, he was serving as a volunteer firefighter in Blairsville.

After the birth of his child and the realization that Blairsville couldn't hire him soon, Ross took a job in Gainesville working third shift at a poultry factory.

On the day of the early morning fire, Ross again got to partially live that dream as a civilian hero.

The price of being a hero hasn't been all good for Ross, though.

A week after the rescue, Ross started to get bills in the mail - expensive medical bills charging Ross for the treatment he received after pulling Johnson from the burning home.

Ross estimated the total charges were about $2,500.

"I just don't know how I'm going to pay them," he said. "That's the only problem."

Ross has health insurance, but said he is not sure yet what will be covered with his plan.

The bills include a checkup and X-ray at the hospital, he said. The one that surprised him, he said, was a charge from Hall County EMS for transport to the hospital.

However, after Ross called the county to ask about the charges, Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell said the charge would be waived.

"He put his life in danger to help someone," Kimbrell explained to The Times. "He's not a typical patient for EMS service."

Since saving Johnson, Ross has largely been treated as a hero, and some Hall County residents have called on one of the local fire departments to hire Ross.
In addition to media coverage, the Hall County Board of Commissioners honored him by naming Dec. 8 Tray Ross Day.

Ross said he was overwhelmed by the gesture.

"I never even knew they did that," he said of having a day named after him. "I thought they only did that in movies."

His wife, Jessica, said it is an honor the two of them will tell their children and grandchildren.

After Ross recalled his story in front of the commissioners and attendants at the meeting earlier this month, Commissioner Ashley Bell personally commended him.

"That's the sort of thing you don't see enough of," he said.

He then added, "We need to hire this young man. Let's work it out."

Ross did apply for one of four open positions with Hall County Fire Services. However, since Ross has not graduated from high school or finished his GED - a requirement to be hired by the county and most fire departments - he's been deemed ineligible.

Ross explained that a full-time job and his duties as a father has postponed completing the requirement, but said he has a renewed effort to complete the task.

Other than a few setbacks, though, Ross said the fire has changed his life for the better.

He said the brush with death has refocused him on his Christian faith.

Ross said he was told by medical staff on the scene of the fire that if it wasn't for him, Johnson would have died.

Ross' take on that night is this: "If it wasn't for God, I would have died."

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