Former Bradenton hero Michael Perry returns to Manatee County for baseball tourney

twolfrum@bradenton.comJuly 13, 2014 

EAST MANATEE -- When the North Brandon 9-U All-Stars won their district and advanced to this week's Cal Ripken state tournament in Heritage Harbour, parent Michael Perry thought it would be a good opportunity to show his children around his hometown.

Perry drove the kids -- baseball player Ethan, 10; Julieanne, 7; and Chase, 5 -- to Prine Elementary and Sugg Middle School.

They stopped off at Wyman Plumbing, where Perry's mother, Rindy Barnhill, has worked for more than 20 years.

The tournament's opening ceremony took the family to McKechnie Field, where Perry served as a bat boy during spring training.

Then, as the family drove by Manatee High, Perry couldn't help but slow to point out the house that made him a national hero for a brief period 28 years ago.

Perry, then 15 and a Manatee High sophomore, saved two young children from a burning home at 3307 13th Ave. W. on April 24, 1986.

Media coverage of the rescue spread coast to coast and resulted in a call from the president.

Perry, now 44 and a rehabilitation nurse who lives in Valrico, said he thinks of that day often.

But it all came flooding back as he spent the week in Manatee County.

"The kids are like, 'Show us your high school. Show us your elementary school. Show us where you grew up.' ... It made my heart feel good that my kids wanted to know," Perry said Saturday as the North Brandon team was on its way to a victory over Okeeheelee. "These four days have been outstanding. ... It's been a wonderful, wonderful time.

"The house is still there. It was pretty neat. We slowed down. I had to look at it for a minute."

According to Bradenton Herald accounts, Perry was locking his bicycle in the Manatee High parking lot at 7:15 a.m. that day when he heard screams from Shari Parker, who stood outside her burning home with 15-month-old daughter Jessica. Parker's husband, Jerry Smith, was still inside, trying to get 4-year-old Amy out a window.

Perry, a pole vaulter, sprinted to the window, broke it with a stick and took Amy from Smith's arms. Smith then went back in to find 3-year-old Dustin but couldn't locate the child. Perry leaned inside the window, saw the boy behind a wall of flame and helped Smith get to him.

After Perry took Dustin, Smith jumped out the window. He was badly burned but survived.

"The saddest part of it was I got to meet him a couple times right after, when his burns were starting to heal, but I lost touch. I would love to know how the kids are doing," Perry said.

Perry moved to Tampa in 1996, lured by the nightlife of a larger city. He and his wife Amy married in 2002.

Though he lives within an hour's drive of Bradenton, Perry said this week's trip has been special.

"We don't come back as often as you would think. My mom comes up there a lot," Perry said. "This town was a lot smaller when I was here. The thing I miss the most is being 3 or 4 miles away from Anna Maria Island, being on the beach and having my kids be beach bums like I was."

Perry has a book of old newspaper clippings and letters he received at the time of the rescue.

"I'm not going to lie to you, it was neat to be on the front page of every newspaper, letters, phone calls. ... I had people send me articles from as far west as Wyoming and California.

"The kids will get the book out. It makes me feel good that my kids know."

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