For their roles in rescuing a retired schoolteacher from her burning home, two members of Johnstown, Pa., Local 459 recently were honored with IBEW Life Saving Awards.
|At a recent meeting for Johnstown, Pa., Local 459 members, journeyman linemen Travis White, left, and Bret Vanderpool, right, were presented IBEW Life Saving Awards by Business Manager Barry Hixson for their work in saving the life of a woman who was trapped in her house by a fire.
“This selfless act of bravery serves as an inspiration to all in the IBEW, and we at Local 459 could not be prouder of our union brothers’ actions on that day,” said Business Manager Barry Hixson in presenting the award.
It all started with a routine, early morning service call. Around 2 a.m. on June 25, 2021, lead troubleman Bret Vanderpool and line construction and maintenance lead Travis White reported to Asylum Township in rural Bradford County, Pa., to repair power lines that had been damaged by a fallen tree branch.
With them was supervisor Gene Rockwell, himself a former Local 459 member.
After restoring power to the area just before sunrise, the crew was wrapping things up when the strong smell of something burning suddenly caught their attention.
“We were about four spans away” from a two-story home, said Vanderpool, who works with White and Rockwell for Penelec, a subsidiary of FirstEnergy serving more than 600,000 customers across northern and central Pennsylvania.
“I saw the flames coming from the house,” said White. “We sprang into action.”
“My first thought was, ‘We need to wake the people up,’” Vanderpool added.
One of the home’s residents, Jim Stevens, told Wyalusing, Pa.’s Rocket-Courier that he had been downstairs and already awake when the fire started, which is how he had managed to
successfully crawl beneath the smoke to get out through the front door.
There, as the Penelec trio arrived at the house, Stevens urgently let them know that his wife, Loretta, had been awakened by a smoke alarm but that she was trapped upstairs by the intensifying flames.
Rockwell was already on his cell phone reporting the fire to a 911 dispatcher as Vanderpool and White scanned around for some way to reach Loretta quickly.
“A ladder was just there by the side of the house,” Vanderpool recalled. “That was a godsend.”
Bracing the ladder against the burning building, White held it steady as Vanderpool climbed toward a second-floor window that Loretta had been able to partially crack open on her own.
“I had to break the window out,” Vanderpool said. “I reached in and got her, then pulled her out.” Cradling her like a baby in his arms, he said, “I carried her down the ladder.”
The electrical workers and the homeowners were all a safe distance from the house, now fully engulfed in flames, by the time the first firefighters arrived on the scene a few minutes later; according to news media reports, units from six area fire companies ended up responding to the blaze.
Photos of the aftermath of the fire, which local officials considered accidental, showed that the house eventually burned to the ground despite the firefighters’ efforts. But thanks in large part to the quick thinking of the Penelec workers, both Stevenses were able to escape the burning house with only minor injuries.
Meanwhile, the crew simply “went back to work after it happened. I found out about [the rescue] two months later,” said Hixson with a laugh.
“These are two longtime linemen, dyed-in-the-wool union guys,” he added, noting that he filled out and submitted the paperwork for the Life Saving Award as soon as he could.
During a church service a few days after the fire, Rep. Tina Pickett, who serves in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, highlighted the crew’s actions and presented them with a certificate “in recognition of their brave and selfless deeds, which are much appreciated and will be long remembered by the community,” she said.
“If Travis hadn’t spotted the fire, or if they’d wrapped up just a few minutes earlier, they would have been down the road,” Dan Dieffenbach, operations services manager for Penelec, told the website for First Energy retirees and alumni. “I’d like to think anybody else might have had the courage and presence of mind to do what they did, but you never know until you’re in that situation.”
The IBEW journeymen linemen’s extensive training and experience doubtless played an important role in the rescue, with Vanderpool noting that he has worked with White and Rockwell for about 17 years.
“We’re like a tight family, a brotherhood,” White said. “We just acted. Everybody did what they needed to do.”