Steel Valley's 'angels' help family whose home caught on fire


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Not all heroes wear capes or badges.

That was the lesson this month for students at Barrett Elementary School, where two teachers are being honored tonight for running into a burning home to save a family. A third teacher is being recognized for providing food and gift cards to the displaced family.

The teachers, known around school as "Barrett's Angels," are Susan Wilder, Carole Policastro and Jonnette Bost

"We're recognizing them for their selfless act of running into a burning building," said Homestead borough manager Ian McMeans.

Each teacher will receive a plaque commending them for their "uncommon courage and bravery" during a council meeting this evening at 7 p.m.

Ms. Wilder, an autistic support teacher at the school in the Steel Valley School District for six years, said she had been tutoring students late in the day on April 2. As she was escorting the students out of the building after the program had ended, she noticed smoke. She knew a second-grader at the school lived in the house across the street from the school on East 12th Street.

"We were wondering where the smoke was coming from," Ms. Wilder said. "Then, I see it coming from the corner of this house."

She acted quickly.

After phoning 911, the 52-year-old Munhall resident made a decision.

"My gut reaction was that this was the beginning and if I could get someone out, this would be the time," Ms. Wilder said.

She banged on the door and getting no answer, ran into the house, checking rooms as she went.

"The television was on and that frightened me even more," Ms. Wilder said.

She found the bedroom where the fire was beginning to rage and continued searching for the family, even combing through the basement.

"It seemed like it happened so fast," Ms. Wilder said. "I knew it was going to spread quickly and it did."

The family was not home at the time, and no one was injured.

As the Homestead Volunteer Fire Department arrived, Ms. Wilder saw that her fellow teacher, Ms. Policastro, also had been in the house searching for people.

Fire Chief Jim Barca said he's thankful for people like Barrett's Angels.

"It's good to have people in the community who will risk their lives to save someone," he said.

Still, Chief Barca would prefer that residents call 911 and stay away from burning buildings.

"A fire can double itself every 30 seconds" and spread incredibly quickly, he said.

The second story of the home sustained major damage, and the cause of the fire is still under investigation by the Allegheny County fire marshal's office, the chief said.

Ms. Bost located and notified the family about the fire and gave them her own gift cards that day to buy food or other necessities. The second-grade teacher also made sure the family had blankets, water, food and other items.

"This was a teachable moment," said Ms. Bost, of West Mifflin. "This was a chance to show students that you practice what you preach. You never know when you will need someone else."

Ms. Wilder said she thought of her own family when she made the decision to enter the house.

"I have four kids myself and if something like that happened at my house, I would want someone to do the same thing," she said. "I love the kids I teach and I love the community."

One person who was not surprised by that day's events was Barrett Elementary principal Sharon Fisher.

"I have some very brave and courageous teachers," she said. "I was definitely very, very proud of them."

For the three modest educators, graciously receiving the recognition has been tougher than the events of April 2.

"It's kinda odd," Ms. Wilder said. "I'm not a person who seeks out recognition."

Neither is Ms. Bost, she said.

"I can't stand being the center of attention," Ms. Bost said. "I could never be a Kardashian."

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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