After his house burns down, firefighter ‘humbled’ by South Jersey community’s kindness

A South Jersey firefighter racing to douse a blaze got a nasty surprise: It was his house that was burning down. The community has rallied to help his family recover.

Tabernacle Fire Lt. Jason Penwell hugs his 15-year-old son after responding to a blaze that gutted his family's home Wednesday. (Maryann Smith)

Tabernacle Fire Lt. Jason Penwell hugs his 15-year-old son after responding to a blaze that gutted his family's home Wednesday. (Maryann Smith)

North Firelane Road is a long road. It stretches on for seven miles across the Pinelands in Burlington County, New Jersey.

So when the Tabernacle Fire Company got the call Wednesday afternoon to respond to a structure fire on North Firelane Road, Lt. Jason Penwell didn’t think much about it. He hopped on the fire truck and sped to the scene with his fellow firefighters from the all-volunteer Tabernacle Fire Company.

“Not much crossed my mind besides: ‘OK, it’s a structure fire. Let’s get to work!’ ” said Penwell, who’s also an active-duty Air Force sergeant.

But halfway there, he added, “the fire chief got on location and gave the house number. And that’s when we realized it was my house.”

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Flames were already racing across the roofline when Penwell pulled up, but all he could think about was his 15-year-old son.

It was 3:30 p.m. — about the time the school bus would drop the boy off from school. He was nowhere to be seen.

After a few frantic seconds, he spotted the teen at the edge of the yard.

His son already had run in and out of the burning two-story home four times to save four of the family’s five dogs. (The fifth, a Belgian Malinois, did not survive.) As a junior firefighter in the fire company’s Explorer program (an off-shoot of the Boy Scouts), he also already had ventilated the windows to make it easier for firefighters to put out the blaze.

“He didn’t have any gear on or anything,” Penwell said, adding with a laugh that he told his son: “I’m extremely proud of you, but I’m ready to choke you at the same time.”

Despite his son’s heroic efforts, the fire gutted the Southampton Township home. The Burlington County Fire Marshal’s Office, which is investigating, hasn’t yet determined a cause.

Penwell’s wife, a veterinary tech assistant who was at work at the time of the fire, and three younger children, who were still on school buses on their way home, were uninjured.

Within hours, the fire company started an online fundraiser for the family, and the community gave so much, it surpassed its goal within one day. By midday Friday, more than $16,000 had been pledged to help Penwell and his family — $6,000 more than the $10,000 goal.

“I have no words,” Penwell said of the community’s generosity. “I tell people thank you all the time but thank you only goes so far. I don’t know what else to say or do to show my appreciation for the community.”

Before the fire was even out, Chief David Smith took Penwell and his family back to the fire company to set them up to bunk there. The company also started lining up volunteers to bring the family dinners as they hunt for a new home and rebuild their lives.

“I’m the type of person who believes that everything happens for a reason,” Penwell said. “We can always look back and try to find a silver lining in everything. You have to — if not, you’ll just become a disgruntled person.”

And just two days after the family lost all their material possessions and a beloved pet, Penwell already can see a silver lining.

“This community has really come together” to help his family, even though the holidays are less than a month gone, Penwell said. “People more or less went in debt for their own family (for holiday gifts), and then to turn around and give so much to us — whether it was a dollar or more, you’re still taking money out of your own pocket and giving it to a stranger. I’m humbled.”

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