New Kensington fireman recalls crawling into burning home to rescue woman
Helping to save a New Kensington woman from her burning home may have reignited Wayne Erb’s interest in being a volunteer firefighter.
Erb, 53, has been a member of New Kensington No. 4’s fire hall since 1987. But because of work and family, he hasn’t been responding to fires for five or six years.
That may all change in the wake of the April 4 fire on Seventh Street, which Erb came across on his way home from work.
“I had to stop and help,” he said. “That’s why I’m a fireman.”
Kaylene Keener, who lived in the second-floor apartment of the three-story house with her husband, Zane, credits Erb with helping to guide her down the smoke-filled stairs and out to safety.
“He saved my life,” Keener said. “My whole family thanks him.
“If it wasn’t for him, I probably would have shut my door and died. I couldn’t see out in my hall. The house went up quick.”
Erb said he was driving home from work at Westinghouse Nuclear Fuels in Derry when he decided to take Seventh Street home. He usually takes Powers Drive, but decided to drive through his old neighborhood.
He saw the house at 1134 Seventh St. on fire, with the first firefighters from his department arriving. Fire was coming out two windows on the side of the house and starting to climb the outside wall. The smoke was heavy.
People outside told Erb there might still be someone inside. It was Keener, in her second-floor apartment.
Erb has responded to hundreds of fires, but not without protective gear. He said this was probably the first time he’d come upon a house fire as a passerby.
He went to the door.
“I yelled, ‘Is anybody in here?’ I didn’t hear anything. I yelled again, and I heard someone yell for help,” he said.
The woman said she couldn’t get out and asked for help, but Erb knew he couldn’t go too far inside without becoming a victim himself.
He got on his belly and crawled inside a bit. He asked if she could hear him; when she said she could, he told her to follow his voice.
“The house was full of smoke. I crawled in as far as I could,” he said. “I kept yelling to get her through the smoke. She was panicking a little. I kept saying, ‘Follow my voice, I’m right here. Follow my voice.’
“The smoke was so thick and heavy. You could start feeling the heat,” he said. “I wasn’t going to leave the lady there; I was there until she got to me.”
Keener made it out without getting hurt.
“It seemed like it took forever,” he said.
Erb said Keener told her she had pets still inside, but by then, the house was engulfed. Her dog and cat died.
He took her across the street, out of the way as firefighters went to work.
Back at the house a few days after the fire, Erb said he might start answering fire calls again.
“Fortunately, I was there,” Erb said. “It’s why I’m a fireman. It’s why I help.
“I think anybody else could’ve done the same thing,” he said. “It just happened to be me that day.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .