Penelec Crew Rescues Woman From House Fire

Travis White; Bret Vanderpool; Gene Rockwell

July 14, 2021

Their job was almost finished. But they still had a life to save.

Shortly before dawn, three Penelec employees were repairing a power line downed by a fallen tree in the Towanda area. As they wrapped up the job, Travis White, lead Line Construction & Maintenance (LC&M), turned and saw flames shooting from the windows of a house in the distance. He alerted his crewmates – Troubleman Bret Vanderpool and Supervisor Gene Rockwell.

Bret and Travis immediately took off running toward the house. Gene called 9-1-1, and then followed.

Bret got to the house just as the homeowner emerged from the door, coughing and covered in soot. He told Bret that his wife was still inside, upstairs, and trapped in the bedroom by smoke and flames. The fire department was on the way, but there was little time to wait.

Spotting an extension ladder in the garage, the line crew put the ladder up to the second story window where the woman was trapped. The crew then helped the woman safely down the ladder to the ground.

Gene estimated that the entire incident – from spotting the fire to the rescue – took about five minutes. By the time firefighters arrived, just three or four minutes later, the home was fully engulfed in flames.

“There were flames blowing out almost every window in the house,” fire chief Brett Keeney told local media. “The Penelec workers saved her life.”

Several factors contributed to the Penelec employees being in the right place and the right time, according to Dan Dieffenbach, manager, Operations Services.

“Recently we’ve been putting a lot of emphasis on safety when trees are involved in outages. So Bret went out to help Travis and Gene with a safe tree removal plan,” Dan 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 knows all too well what the men had faced. He spent 15 years as a firefighter.

“That was a great effort,” he said. “What really hit home for me is that the rescued woman was my home economics teacher in school.”

When Dan commended the men for their life[1]saving actions, they simply responded: “We just did what anybody else would have done.”

“They’re really humble guys,” Dan said. “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. Bret, Gene and Travis, those guys are heroes in my eyes.”

This Towanda area home was destroyed by a fire that broke out shortly before dawn on June 25. (Photo courtesy of the Wyalusing Rocket-Courier)