03/24/2010 at 02:00 PM EDT
Jake Vernon, 32, was lying in bed in his house in Spokane, Wash. It was the morning of St. Patrick's Day and he was in pain, his eyes closed. Both his legs had been paralyzed in a car accident a decade ago, and his right leg had been broken in a recent hospital mishap. So he took some medication and that's when his dog, Gracie Bean, saved his life.
Gracie, an American pit bull terrier, had begun yapping at Jake. She ran to the back door, barking, then ran back to a groggy Jake –who yelled at her.
"I even swatted her a few times and told her to lay down and be good," he told PEOPLEPets.com in a recent telephone interview.
Finally, he opened his eyes and was horrified to find the bed's headboard on fire, along with the pillows, blankets and even the bedside table. The smoke alarm was blaring, warning of the blaze that would soon destroy his home.
Wearing only a sweatshirt, Jake grabbed a Snuggie to cover his legs and crawled across the bed. "I dove head first into the wheelchair and landed on the ground and then I had to crawl into the wheelchair," he says.
Next he faced getting out of his house's back door, the only one with a wheelchair ramp. With his legs sticking out at odd angles, Jake had trouble navigating the narrow exit. He recalls thinking, "You'd better move your ass right now or you're not going to have an ass to move."
So Jake, who plays wheelchair basketball professionally, banged his chair and his unbent legs into walls to straighten himself out. All the while Gracie was calm. "What was so crazy was my dog was not afraid of the fire," he says. "My dog walked right between me and the fire and stayed right there."
After he wheeled out with a few minor burns – and gashes on his legs – Jake summoned the fire department (his wife, Michelle, 33, was out that morning). That's when he saw something else that he'd never witnessed before: People smiling and cooing over his 2-year-old hero pit bull.
"I was seeing a big firefighter, 6-foot-6, and he got down on his hands and knees and hugged that dog with everything he had and he kept saying, 'This this is the best animal in the world.' "
Jake first met Gracie Bean as a puppy. His wife had found her on Craigslist and gave the dog to her husband as a Christmas gift. Gracie had no special training, but Jake later taught her how to push open doors. Little did she know she'd become a rescue dog.
"She is the most spoiled-rottenest dog in the world," says Jake. "She's gotten the biggest cheeseburgers, French dip au jus sandwiches, and ice cream!"See more hero pets on PEOPLEPets.com:'Sweetheart' German Shepherd Shot Five Times Is Saved by SurgeryGerman Shepherd Shot Twice While Protecting Mom and Baby