Barbara Toth doesn't remember much about the accident that almost killed her on St. Patrick's Day when an oxygen tank exploded and filled her living room with flames and smoke.
And until this weekend, she hadn't met Kevin Koch, 42, the man who saved her life by rushing into the burning building at 714 Cayuga St. and dragging her out.
Koch and Toth arranged a reunion in Aptos at the Pacific Coffee Company Saturday, near Frank's Pharmacy, where she was picking up her prescriptions.
"This is my hero," she said, crying and hugging him a month after the blaze that left her Seabright apartment a smoldering mess. "This is my Sir Lancelot. If not for you Kevin, I would not be here. A few more seconds and I would have been gone."
It was around 8 p.m. when Toth, 56, flicked a lighter to fire up a stick of incense and get rid of a sewage smell that had settled around the apartment, which has since been condemned because it wasn't up to code.
"As soon as I flicked the lighter, my couch exploded," Toth recalled tearfully. "It literally threw me out of my wheelchair. I went flying through the house."
Koch, a custodian at Pacific Collegiate School, felt the explosion from his house and ran to help when he heard his neighbor screaming that she couldn't breathe.
He kicked down the door, with some help from a neighbor named Carol, and fought choking, blinding smoke to find Toth. Her screams led him to her and just in the nick of time, he gathered the strength to drag her out and across the street.
"I wasn't really scared," said Koch. "I was just doing the next job that needed to be done. Now I'm sure my brain said, 'don't be thinking about what could happen or anything,' but it must have switched off."
The worst part, he said, was being in the building, blinded by smoke and thinking he couldn't find his way out.
He said he was also afraid as he approached the building and heard the screams that it was something worse than a fire, like someone attacking people.
"When I came around the corner and saw it was a fire, I was relieved it wasn't someone coming to attack me," he said.
It was sort of a miracle that he was even home that night, said Koch.
"If my wife hadn't been working I never would have been there. "We would have been out. It was St. Patrick's Day."
Koch said the teens at his school didn't say anything to him about it, but he could tell they knew from the way they acknowleged him and smiled. Teachers and others who knew of his heroic act congratulated him.
Toth lost everything in the blaze, except a wheelchair, which survived. She had just gotten a power chair that was burned up.
"Stuff is stuff," she said. "You can replace stuff. You can't replace your life."
Her biggest loss, however, was the baby pictures of her children and photographs of her family.
Koch said that after saving her, he ran back to his own house and cleared out the photo albums. He was afraid the fire would spread and that was the one thing he wanted to salvage.
Toth was taken by helicopter to San Jose in critical condition but was released after a week. A former family therapist, she said she is still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"I've treated a lot of people for PTSD, but I can honestly say that my case is one of the worst I've seen," she said. "I keep having flashbacks and I try to push them out of my head, but I can't."
Toth is living with her ex-husband, but has a house lined up in Ben Lomond near her son. People have called to donate things to her, not realizing she has less than they could imagine.
"One woman called to offer me sheets," she said. "I had to tell her I don't even have a bed."
There is a fund set up to help her at gofundme.com/house-fire-horror. So far, it has collected $1,065 of the $10,000 she needs to get settled.
If there is a lesson that Toth wants to share, it's to remind anyone else who uses oxygen to remember to ventilate the room for 30 minutes before igniting any flame. She knew she shouldn't light anything while the oxygen was running, but didn't realize how dangerous it was even after it had been turned off.
She had been told not to smoke when using oxygen – "well, duh," she says – but no one told her about ventilating the house for a half hour before lighting a match.
"I turned my machine off," said Toth, who suffers from a lung condition. "I removed my line. I threw it on the couch. I thought I was perfectly safe."
She's since learned that oxygen permeates everything around it making it flammable, including clothes and skin, and particularly furniture.
"If I had known that, it never would have happened," she said, unclear why no one warned her about the gas heater she used also.
Her meeting with Koch is part of her return from the trauma, Toth said.
"My heart was aching before I could see Kevin and thank him. It literally hurt. I feel like I can move forward. Without being able to thank you in person, I never would have had closure. I feel like a thousand pound weight is off my shoulders."