Just before 3 a.m. Tuesday, Marc Buford awoke to a knock.
As he walked to answer the front door of his Lady's Island apartment, he thought he smelled something burning. Half-asleep, he opened the door.
No one was there, but he could still hear the knocking.
Buford saw thick, black smoke billowing from below.
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In his thermal pajamas and socks, Buford bounded down the stairs to the first floor. The apartment under his was on fire.
He could still hear the knocking -- the desperate sound of a woman being burned alive.
"Where are you at?" Buford screamed. He ran to a window. There was nothing but smoke.
He rushed to the other window, the bedroom window. It was locked.
The knocking was coming from the right.
He ran to the apartment next door. Mike Conrad answered the door to a frantic, pale Buford.
"Come on! Come on! I need your help," he said.
The two raced back to the bedroom window.
The knocking had stopped.
They found a cinder block lying nearby. Buford threw it through the window, aiming to the left, away from where he thought the woman was. Buford reached in and pulled up the window.
Their neighbor was slumped next to the window, her back against the wall.
They reached in and grabbed her arms. Both men were coughing and choking on the smoke as they lifted her limp body through the window.
Buford thought she was dead.
But as he lowered her onto the ground, her head in his hands, her eyes met his.
"And I saw life," Buford said.
As the two men rescued 25-year-old Christina Ryan from her Tabby Oaks apartment, other neighbors also were awakened and called 911.
Ryan's face was covered in soot. Much of her skin was charred, speckled with pink spots of flesh. Her clothes had burned off.
"It was like something out of a horror movie," Conrad said.
As they waited for the paramedics to arrive, Buford and Conrad watched her chest rise and fall, monitoring her only sign of life.
Buford picked up Ryan's hand and felt a faint pulse. But her hand was hot and he let go, worried he was causing more pain.
"Just hold on, they're coming," he told her.
The Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District and paramedics arrived at about 3 a.m. The fire was quickly extinguished and did not damage any other units, fire district spokesman Scott Harris said.
However, Ryan was taken to Beaufort Memorial Hospital and then later flown to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., Harris said.
She is on a ventilator and was in critical condition as of Tuesday evening, according to a family friend, Beaufort County Councilman Brian Flewelling.
Flewelling said Ryan graduated from Beaufort High School and then spent three years in England studying dance. She had lived in China for the last two years teaching English, moved back to Beaufort County a few months ago and had since been teaching at Larew Dance Centre on Lady's Island.
Harris said the fire is believed to be an accident, but is still under investigation.
'LOOKING AT ME'
When the paramedics arrived, Buford ran to his 6-year-old son, who was outside with Buford's mother, with whom he lives.
The last emergency worker departed at about 5:20 a.m. Buford slept for less than an hour before waking up to get his son ready for school.
Buford works as a painter and stayed home Tuesday. He tried to sleep, but couldn't.
He didn't know the woman he pulled from the fire. She'd just moved into the complex a month or two ago. They'd wave hello to each other as they came and went from their apartments, or when they bumped into each other in the aisles of the nearby Food Lion. He wanted to see her at the hospital, but didn't even know her name.
He's not sure he'd ever made eye contact with the woman before, but now he is haunted by her hazel eyes -- "light brown and bold, like honey."
"This was the only time I've looked at her face-to-face," Buford said.
"You know how in movies they flash back? I'm standing there and it took me back to the smoke and pulling her out and her looking at me."
Follow reporter Laura Oberle at twitter.com/IPBG_Laura.