The black smoke was so thick, he could barely see.
But NYPD Officer Gary Gione continued forward, crawling on his hands and knees behind a firefighter until the two men reached a group of tiny, unconscious children huddled together in the burning Bronx apartment.
Gione cradled 8-month-old Mahkiya Allen in his arms, then ran down 10 flights of stairs, pausing on each landing to perform CPR on her.
“There was no choice,” Gione told The Post. “We are trained to help people, so that’s what we did. Instead of running away from the smoke, we run toward the heat.”
It was Feb. 13, 1982, a day that stuck with Gione, 61, long after the smoke settled.
The electrical fire killed two children in the Mount Hope apartment — 8-month-old Makeba Allen and 3-year-old Takiki Allen.
The girls’ three sisters — Mahkiya, Natasha and Iesha — survived, thanks to the bravery of first responders.
Mahkiya, whom Gione saved, barely made it, developing cerebral palsy from the smoke inhalation.
“It was lucky that we even got out ourselves. The smoke was the worst I’ve ever seen it,” said Gione, who spent three weeks recovering from smoke inhalation.
The since-retired officer always wondered what became of the family — 36 years later, he found out.
With the help of Facebook, he finally connected with one of the surviving sisters, Natasha Allen-Crump, last fall.
“If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here right now,” Allen-Crump, who now lives in Atlanta, told The Post.
The Allen family organized a multicourse dinner in Gione’s honor at Ann & Tony’s Restaurant in The Bronx on the 36-year anniversary of the tragedy.
The long-awaited reunion on Feb. 13 was emotional and full of hugs.
Allen-Crump presented Gione with a “Serve and Protect” plaque as a show of their gratitude.
“This is an amazing time in my life,” Gione, who now runs a martial-arts academy in Yorktown, said with a wide smile as he accepted the plaque.
“I’m so shook up now. It’s a very surreal thing.”
Diane Allen-Simmons, now 57, was doing laundry when the fire broke out in her Valentine Avenue apartment with her five little girls inside.
She’d just grabbed some quarters from her dad, who owned a club on the corner and was walking back when she saw two cops staring up at her building.
It was Gione and another officer, Richard Sabater, who were responding to a call about a blaze on the 10th floor. They were joined by a firefighter who happened to be driving in the area but was without his equipment.
“What’re you all looking at?” Allen-Simmons remembered asking.
When they told her it was a fire on the 10th floor, she shouted and frantically raced to the elevator.
“Don’t open that f–king door,” the fireman yelled as she barreled down the hallway toward her door.
Terrified, Allen-Simmons ignored him, opening the door before being blasted back by a powerful backdraft.
“She got hit pretty hard,” Gione said. “She was kind of stunned and got knocked back and ran toward us.
“The fireman ran down the hallway, and we crawled on our hands and knees inside.”
The next thing Allen-Simmons remembers is waking up in her dad’s club.
Later, the young mom just wanted to know where her kids were.
“When they told me my daughters had died, I was in a doctor’s office,” Allen-Simmons recalled. “I just tore up his whole office. This man’s books were on the floor. I fell onto his floor.”
Natasha Allen-Crump was just 4 years old when the fire broke out, but she remembers the moment her siblings realized smoke was pouring out of one of their bedrooms.
Her older sister Iesha pulled Allen-Crump to the floor with baby Mahkiya — a safety measure Iesha had learned at summer camp. Makeba and Takiki were in another room.
“I was on the floor and I looked up and can remember seeing my little sister, Takiki, holding Makeba,” Allen-Crump said.
“I think it was a vision. I guess I just hoped that they would come out, and I remember seeing her and I’m like, ‘Come on.’ ”
Allen-Crump’s next memory is of the hospital, where she woke up covered in plastic.
The three surviving sisters had suffered severe smoke inhalation and spent several months recovering.
“I remember everybody came to the hospital one time all dressed up in black,” she said. “I thought something was going on.”
Natasha and Iesha spent some of their days wandering the halls, looking for their other sisters, Allen-Crump recalled.
“Before we left the hospital, my mom and my uncle sat down with us and told us what happened,” she said. “We held each other and sat with each other for a long time.”
Allen-Simmons said losing two children brought her to a bad place, and she began using drugs to cope with her grief.
“My life went kind of downhill,” she said. “I slipped into drugs. That didn’t help. I’ve been through it.”
But, with the help of Natasha and Iesha, she eventually bounced back. Now she’s the proud grandmother of six grandchildren, two of whom have graduated from college.
They still light candles on Makeba and Takiki’s birthdays.
“We’re celebrating the life that was left,” Allen-Simmons said at the reunion dinner, gazing at three tables filled with family members. “I’m grateful for Gary. I’m just happy today. I’m grateful, full and appreciative.”
Allen-Crump was shocked when she found a Facebook message from Gione in her inbox last October.
“I might be the cop who saved you and your sister in 1982,” the message read. She thought it was a joke at first.
“But the dates were right, and it was my sister’s name. It’s very unusual,” Allen-Crump said.
She began sobbing, and asked him to give her a call.
“He’s like, ‘I’ve been looking for ya’ll for like 35 years. I never knew what happened to you after the fire,’ ” Allen-Crump said.
“It was the first time he’d ever seen kids die in a fire. That took a toll on him.”
Gione jumped at the opportunity to reunite over dinner in The Bronx. He’d kept a Post article from the fire in a scrapbook, returning to it every now and then.
“The South Bronx was so bad that anything could’ve happened to these girls. They could’ve died, been killed in drive-by shooting. Who knew what happened after that,” he said.
Gione beamed as he exchanged hugs and shook hands with the Allen family last week at Ann & Tony’s, where Allen-Crump had reserved a private room with three long tables that fit more than 15 people.
Together, they feasted on mussels, bruschetta, pasta, chicken parmigiana and other red-sauce specialities.
Gione and Allen-Crump chatted like old friends, discussing their kids and the fateful night of the fire.
“It feels like I’ve known him forever,” she said. “It’s a very cool, unique situation.”
The retired officer was happy to know that Natasha and Iesha are thriving in Atlanta, with good careers and close-knit families.
“It’s kind of like a happy-sad type of thing,” Gione said. “Happy because they survived, sad because I couldn’t save all of them.”
Mahkiya, with whom Gione charged down the stairs nearly four decades ago, is mostly non-verbal — but lives a full life at a group home in Jamaica, Queens.
“Her favorite thing is music — Latin, rock ‘n roll, anything with a beat,” said rehab specialist Marilyn White, who has been working with Mahkiya since she was 14 years old.
“It’s been rewarding to watch her grow. She lets you know what she wants,” the caregiver said.
White called it a “privilege” to attend the dinner. “For me, it’s a joyous event,” she said.
Iesha Allen couldn’t attend, but Skyped in from Atlanta, telling Gione at one point, “Everything happens for a reason.”
Gione was touched by the kindness of the survivors.
“They all turned out to be great people,” he said. “Everybody is taking care of each other.”