A group of four Clay County teenagers were traveling back from a 4-H Teen Leadership Lab in Roaring Springs June 5, when they experienced a life-changing event.
Macy McDaniel, Kasey Taylor, Cassie Pickett and Skee Burkes of Henrietta had just spent the last two days gaining leadership skills and daily reciting the 4-H creed, “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country and my world.”
Less than an hour after leaving the camp with their leader Sherri Halsell, Clay County Extension Agent for Family Consumer Sciences, their leadership skills and their pledged commitment to public service was called to action.
They spotted smoke just outside of the small town of Paducah in Cottle County. Halsell, a former Paducah resident, called 911 to see if anyone had reported the fire. It had not yet been called in, so Halsell drove closer to the fire to report it was a home that was on fire with smoke and flames visible from the front of the house.
“Even though we couldn’t see any cars around, I felt like we should go check it out and make sure no one was there,” said Pickett, 16, a junior at Henrietta High School. “I just kind of felt an instinct that something bad might be happening.”
After reporting the fire, Halsell was preparing to move her vehicle out of the way of emergency vehicles that would soon be arriving when the kids told her they saw somebody waving from the front porch. Halsell drove up to the house to find 89-year-old Helen Johnston on her porch swing, barely responsive and unable to move. Disabled and diabetic, Johnston, who lived alone, had suffered severe burns on her arms and legs as she tried to get out of the house. Her walker remained inside the door while she somehow made it to the porch swing when the passerby’s found her.
Her living room, immediately inside the porch, was on fire. The heat of the flames had caused the windows to explode onto the front porch.
The group knelt beside Johnston and tried to talk to her, but she was barely able to speak. They could not get her up off the swing, as she was too weak to move.
Burkes, 15, a sophomore at HHS, knelt beside Johnston, between her and the fire blazing less than 10 feet behind him and held her hand as they assured her help was on the way.
“It was really hot, but it just wouldn’t be right to leave her,” Burkes said. “We were the only ones there. She was helpless and it was just something you should do – help somebody in need. Our main goal was to get her out of harm’s way.”
McDaniel, 17, also knelt next to Johnston, opposite Burkes. A trained volunteer fire fighter, McDaniel has served on the Arrowhead Ranch Estates Volunteer Fire Department in Clay County since she was 14. McDaniel says she has responded to many fires, but never one that involved a victim, as this situation did.
“Fire training helped a lot because I know things can go wrong fast,” McDaniel says. “We just kept watching the fire to make sure we weren’t going to stay too long and get more people hurt.”
Pickett and Taylor, 16, also a junior at HHS, cleared glass and other debris from the porch to prepare a path to move Johnston. With the fire moving towards the rear of the house, they tried to find keys to drive Johnston’s vehicle away from the flames.
When the first two county responders arrived, the group was then able to carry the victim to Halsell’s vehicle and turn the air conditioning on for her. Not able to find the keys, county responders towed Johnston’s vehicle away from the burning house to prevent the gasoline from sparking an explosion.
The Paducah volunteer firemen arrived on the scene and were able to transfer Johnston to a wheel chair. She was then transported by ambulance to Childress Regional Medical Center. Later that evening she was transported by helicopter to a burn unit at University Medical Center in Lubbock.
“This is a wonderful example of teaching our young teen about responsibility, ethics and morals. These individuals could have simply bypassed this situation completely, however, their background of teachings were demonstrated to the limit when placed under crises situations,” said Cottle County Sheriff Kenneth Burns. “We cannot imagine what may have happened without their assistance. Each of them should be lauded, praised and shown the ultimate in respect for their actions. It is my great concern that each of them will be able to cope with this very dramatic situation, and will continue to strive for excellence of serving themselves and our country in the future. A job well done. Thanks from all the family and Cottle County.”
“The compassion the kids showed was heart touching,” said Halsell. “It was like they were all working together to help her.
“There wasn’t time to plan things out; they just reacted, and their reaction to the situation was amazing,” Halsell added. “They all remained calm.”
“I was so glad no one freaked out or lost control,” Burkes said. “We were all thinking the same things – we needed to get her off the porch; we needed to get her car away from the fire. The fact that we were all thinking the same thing and everybody remained calm was the best thing we could do for her.
“It was kind of ironic, but thinking as a group, not selfish thinking, was the focus of the leadership camp,” Burkes added. “When we left camp that morning, the thing they impressed upon us the most was how we all need to work together and communicate. They told us if we don’t work together it can turn into a complete disaster and that everybody can be a leader, you just need to be on the right track together. And we were.”
Sadly, Johnston succumbed to the wounds caused by the fire and passed away on June 9.
“It made me realize timing is everything,” said Pickett, reflecting on the experience. “If we had shown up later things could have been a lot worse, but then again if we had spotted the fire and shown up earlier maybe we could have done more for her. I do know God was there and He wanted us to help her all we could.”
Taylor agreed. “She was in bad shape, but God was watching over her for us to get to her when we did.”
“I was relieved that we got her out,” McDaniel said. “Even though she was burned badly, at least her family could see her again and she could have a chance. It was important to us that she not burn up in the fire.”
The group of five denounce any comments about them being heroes, emphasizing they were just trying to do the right thing.
“We may not have gone where we intended to go that day, but we ended up where we were needed most,” McDaniel said.