Milford hero: 'Spider' saved disabled man from Feb. 20 boarding house fire

Milford has a new hero: He goes by the name Spider, and, just to prove it, he has a spider tattoo on his neck.

His real name is Eric Speiser. He is one of a handful of men who was living in the Brismont Lodge when it caught fire Feb. 20, leaving the boarding house at 79 North Street uninhabitable.

Speiser didn’t think twice that night about heading upstairs to make sure that Kurt Johnson, a local disabled veteran, got out.

“The first thing I thought of was to check on Kurt,” Speiser said. “He only has one leg.”

Johnson has a prosthetic leg, which he takes off before going to bed.

A smoke alarm sounded at about 10 that night, and Speiser was already in his room. At first, he thought the sound was coming from the television, but when he realized it was a smoke alarm he rallied.

He left his room and noticed smoke in the air. He made his way up the stairs to the second floor, and then to the back of the house where Johnson’s room was. He heard the veteran calling for help as he got closer.

“When I got there, he was on the floor in the hallway outside his door, and he was covered in soot,” Speiser said.

Smoke was starting to get heavier. Speiser grabbed Johnson and started pulling him toward the staircase and down to the first floor. He called for some of the other men who lived in the building, and others came to help get Johnson into the kitchen.

The fire hadn’t raged yet, and Johnson cleaned himself of soot in the kitchen before going out the back door to safety.

Speiser grabbed a fire extinguisher from the kitchen and headed back up the stairs to Johnson’s room, where the fire started. He went in and sprayed the flames, but the smoke was thick at that point and the fire didn’t succumb to his attempts to put it out.

By the time he got himself back downstairs and outside, the fire was full blown.

“He would have perished if it wasn’t for Spider,” said Charlie Belinski, who also lived at the boarding house.

Mayor Ben Blake said he was impressed with Speiser’s bravery, noting that Speiser checked all the rooms in the boarding house to make sure everyone was out. He expects to issue a proclamation in honor of Speiser.

For Speiser, the act may have been instinct. He said he was working on a lobster boat years ago and a younger man fell overboard. Speiser didn’t dally that time either: He jumped overboard to get him.

There were 14 rooms in the North Street boarding house, plus a shared kitchen, and the rooms were rented only to men for about $160 a week. After the fire, some of the men who lived there moved to the Milford Inn. Some, like Speiser and Belinski, have already secured other rentals.

Speiser said he lost most of his possessions in the fire, though he was able to salvage equipment he uses in his work cutting trees. The Red Cross and Milford’s Department of Human Services have helped him and others with replacing some of their things and covering various expenses.

“Spider” sort of laughed at the title “hero” and said he just hopes someone would do the same for him in a similar situation.

Belinski looked at him and chuckled. “I don’t think that would happen,” he joked.

Speiser said he’s had the nickname Spider since he was a kid. He had a pet tarantula, so his mother started calling him Spider.

Speiser was born and raised in Bridgeport and has lived in Stratford. He had lived in the boarding house in downtown Milford since August.

Fire Chief Robert Healey said careless smoking was to blame for the fire, which presented challenges to firefighters because of the age of the house and the frigid temperatures that night.

The house has what is called balloon construction, which means the wall studs run up more than one floor, making it easy for fire to run through an entire building.

Embers from the upstairs room where the fire started must have fallen to the lower floor and caused the blaze to spread quickly, the chief said.