HAMILTON — Ross High School student Justin Pence had recently just mowed his mother’s lawn and thought to himself the hardest part of his day was done.
But a nearby apartment fire trapping two people on the top floor — including a deaf woman — would quickly change that.
Pence was relaxing on the back deck of his mother’s west Hamilton home when he spotted smoke coming from the third-story windows of apartments at 18 Beth Lane, about 300 yards away.
The Ross junior and star football player dashed toward the building, now belching black smoke, scrambled over a fence and then sprinted to the scene that now included a trapped man leaning out top-corner window choking from the deadly fumes.
Also speeding to the scene of the May 9 afternoon blaze were fire crews from Hamilton Fire Dept. and firefighters from Ross and Fairfield as the entire top hallway was going up in flames trapping the man and his deaf wife.
“It was a pretty hectic scene and there was a dude hanging out of the window and he was struggling to get air,” Pence later told the Journal-News.
“My first reaction was to get him out of the building as fast as I could.”
For the starting center for Ross football that meant ignoring a recent back injury and bracing himself in a large bush about 25-feet below the man and holding his arms out while yelling for him to jump.
The man leapt from the window with Pence and the bush mostly breaking his fall as they both went tumbling.
Then his wife appeared in the window and the teen didn’t know it yet but a skill he had learned last year in school — sign language — was about to help save a life.
“After I got the man out of the building I looked and his deaf wife is signing to me that she can’t breathe either. So I signed back to her ‘you have to get down now, hallway is on fire.’”
“And I tried to catch her,” he recalled, sending both spinning into the bush and safe from the flames that had roared through the top floor.
Thanks to Pence’s heroics, both survived, suffering relatively minor injuries, said Hamilton fire officials.
The blaze, which caused more than $200,000 in damage to the top-floor apartments, remains under investigation, said fire officials.
But once Pence made sure EMS crews were tending to the couple, he brushed himself off and walked back to his mother’s home before firefighters could interview him. They have spent the last week searching for the young hero and said they were grateful for the Journal-News identifying him.
And Pence, who is a member of his high school’s chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said he was blessed to have a chance to help.
“I feel like God just put me there. All through out my life I’ve been taught to treat other people the way you’d like to be treated. So if I, or one of my family members, were stuck in an apartment building (fire), I’d want someone else come and help out too.”
Hamilton Fire Chief Mark Mercer described Pence as “impressive.”
“To have that awareness that he should do something and knowing what it was. And then to have that special skill to be able to communicate to the lady,” said Mercer.
Ross High School Principal Brian Martin said Pence’s bravery was no shock to anyone there.
“Justin’s actions aren’t surprising to anyone who knows him here at Ross. He’s as unselfish a young man as you’ll find with a great work ethic,” said Martin.
“Justin is a standout offensive lineman on the varsity football team, carries 3.4 GPA, and is a good young man outside of the classroom. Just a hardworking, unassuming young man who does the right thing and puts others first.”
Mercer said Pence may have a new career option.
“I don’t know what his future holds, but if he is looking for a job … the fire department would love to talk to him.”