While en route to deliver meals to students in Wetzel Country, retired teacher’s aide Eva Rogalski, school nurse Tiffany Heinzman and school bus driver Jeremy Shepherd quickly jumped into action to save a woman inside a burning house.
Each Monday during COVID-19 school closures, Wetzel County Schools employees provide meal delivery to students along their normal routes. On April 6, as the three employees shared, they were in the right place at the right time.
The transportation team had just finished picking up food for their route at Paden City Elementary, when school bus driver Shepherd noticed smoke coming from a building across the street. Rogalski, who retired as a teacher’s aide two years but is now working as a long-term substitute aide for the elementary school, said Shepherd slowed the bus down and pulled over to the address the situation.
The trio noticed that a fire had started on the porch of a house and was quickly spreading. Heinzman jumped off the bus and called 911 as she made her way to the front door. She told School Transportation News that she pounded on the door until a woman answered.
“When we pulled over … there was a car in the driveway, so my first thought was, just to make sure that there was nobody inside, just like anybody else would have done,” Heinzman shared. “With a fire, you are always going to be worried there’s somebody present, so I just wanted to make sure there was nobody.”
Rogalski added that because she, Heinzman and Shepherd work for a school system, they were even more concerned knowing there could be a child inside.
“We pounded on the screen door, and then I opened it just enough to beat on the actual door, but [the woman inside] came pretty fast,” Heinzman said. “She said she was asleep when she came to the door, so we pretty much told her, she had to get out of the house.”
About a week later, Heinzman still had bruises on her wrist from knocking so hard.
While Rogalski and Heinzman were alerting the woman that her house was on fire. Shepherd had grabbed the fire extinguisher from inside the school bus and began putting out the fire. Shepherd noted that in another three to four minutes, the entire house would have been engulfed in flames.
“As we said a million times, this is nothing that other people would not have done,” Rogalski explained. “We were very fortunate that it happened to be a bus route and we had a fire extinguisher on the bus, but I think anybody would have done [the same thing.]
“It was really a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”
Afterward, the transportation team said they went back to the bus barn to obtain a new working fire extinguisher, as required by state law, and notified the dispatcher, who in turn informed all the families that bus was going to 30 to 45 minutes late in delivering their food.
“We are Wetzel County Schools and that’s how we roll,” Rogalski said. “So, that was just our day.”
Shepherd added, “We are just happy that we got the lady out … and we are happy she’s safe. And I personally own rental real estate, and I would hope that somebody would be willing to save one of my properties that way.”
Rogalski shared that the property owner personally thanked them for their actions. “The gentleman that owned the property messaged each of us and thanked us. He said the most important thing was that the lady got out, because property is nothing when there is a life involved, but he thanked us very much for really saving the property. Like Jeremey [Shepherd] said, a few minutes later that could have been a full-blown fire, and not everyone travels with a fire extinguisher in their cars, so we were just very lucky that we were there with the bus and the fire extinguisher.”
Continuously quoting the school bus driver mantra, that they were only doing their jobs, the team noted that every Monday they continue to deliver meals and homework packets to students in need even though the district made the delivery program voluntary for all staff.
Wetzel County schools’ buildings have been closed since March 16. All staff, including teachers, aides, nurses and school bus drivers are continuing to be paid during the closures.
However, even though delivering resources is voluntary, and staff is paid regardless, Shepherd said some students on his route wouldn’t have access to food without the school’s resources, as he drives a very rural route. He said that at least 90 percent of the district’s drivers are opting to deliver the meals.
“This is my fifth year driving, and it’s good to see the kids,” Shepherd said. “And they are usually happy to see us.”
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Rogalski said the district has been putting together videos for their students that they post on Facebook or YouTube as a way to stay in contact and stay connected. The videos feature different members of the staff holding up signs and expressing how much they miss the kids.
She added that many teachers are also reaching out and talking to the students one-on-one to check up on them.
“We are trying to stay in contact with the students, I worked with a special education teacher, I am an aide … and there are seven students in our school that he sees every day,” Rogalski said. “So, I have been mailing them postcards and then following up with a phone call, I got to talk to a couple of those students [on Friday morning.] A lot of the teachers are doing that, they are trying to get that one-on-one personal contact with their students to touch base and make sure they are doing okay.”