Former student credited with fire warning


Salem seventh grade English teacher Berni Jesko gives thanks to former student Owen Kirkland, a 16-year-old Salem High School junior who saw smoke and flames inside her house while out running and called for help. She and her husband Tom credited his quick actions with saving their home from total destruction during a recent fire. (Salem News photo by Mary Ann Greier)

SALEM — Salem High School junior Owen Kirkland didn’t hesitate when he ran for help the afternoon of Aug. 6 after seeing smoke and flames in a window at his former teacher’s house.

He said he imagined being in that situation and what he would want someone to do for him, if it was his house that was on fire.

Homeowners Tom and Berni Jesko credited Owen’s quick thinking with getting firefighters there in time to save the home where they’ve raised their family.

“To us, he’ll always be our hero,” Tom said.

The cross country athlete was out for a run in his neighborhood when he started smelling a burning plastic smell and saw the smoke.

“One of the bedroom windows was completely blackened from ashes and then I saw a flame in the same window,” he said.

Owen sprinted home and called 911, told his mom, Cindy, and grabbed his friend Will Cunningham, who was also there. The two boys sprinted back to the house where Berni, a Salem seventh grade English teacher, lived with her husband Tom. They started banging on the windows and doors in an effort to alert them and only stepped back to get out of the way of first responders.

Somewhere away from the chaos erupting at their house in Perry Township, Tom said “we were out enjoying our anniversary. We were out to dinner.”

Owen called his dad, Sean, who happens to be Berni’s boss as principal of the high school and junior high, and he came to the scene and tried to call Berni.

“Via Nashville, Tenn., we got informed,” she said.

Explaining the series of phone calls that led to her learning about the house fire, Berni said Sean called a mutual friend, former teacher Jacque Rich, and she called her daughter, Allie Winner, who’s a teacher and coach at Salem, who was on her way home from Nashville. Allie then called Berni and Tom’s daughter, Lizzie, who in turn called Tom.

As they made their way home, the first thing Berni noticed were all the fire trucks lined up and down the street near their house.

“It was devastating. You don’t expect that — it’s your whole life in front of you,” she said.

The first person she saw was Sean and she looked for Owen but he had already left.

“It seemed like every other person I saw was a former student. That was a great feeling at a terrible time,” she said.

Both she and Tom had praise for the fire departments from Perry Township, the city of Salem and Green Township for the work they did in putting out the fire, which was contained to the bedroom. She said they were all so kind. She thanked the police officers on the scene, also.

“It’s all fixable,” Tom said, with Berni adding, “If it had been a few more minutes, it would not have been. It would not have been that outcome if it had not been for Owen.”

The home was insured and they’re making repairs at the same time that Berni’s preparing to return to school. They said they’re very thankful and grateful to have caring people in the community and Berni commented that not only did Owen call for help, he and his friend ran back and knocked on the doors and windows, putting themselves at risk.

Tom said he could have kept running and not done anything, but he made a choice to get help. Tom said that’s a reflection on his parents, Sean and Cindy, and his upbringing.

“I’m proud of him. I talk to him all the time about making good judgments, making good decisions and always doing the right thing. We always talk about doing the right thing when nobody’s looking,” Sean said.

Berni said he does that with all the students, too.

Owen’s still running, but now he’ll be focusing on improving his times and preparing for the upcoming annual Salem cross country early bird invitational. He’s also a member of the Quaker wrestling and track teams.