‘Came back to me at the perfect time’: Hamilton teen uses ASL to help save deaf woman from fire

HAMILTON, Ohio — Justin Pence didn’t know it then, but the American Sign Language he learned in school would end up helping save lives.

“It was pretty helpful to remember,” he said. “I figured I would never really use it much in my life but it came it came back to me at the perfect time.”

The 17-year-old had just finished mowing his mom’s backyard in Hamilton the afternoon of March 9 when he said he said he saw smoke billowing from the apartment building behind the home.

“I’m listening and I hear some dude say, ‘The hallway’s on fire, I need help,'” Pence said.

The Ross High School football team’s starting center didn’t have to think twice before jumping the fence and rushing over to the burning building.

“I look up and there’s he’s hanging out of the window and he’s like, ‘Help me, I can’t breathe,'” he said.

The man he heard earlier was desperately trying to escape the flames overtaking the top-floor hallway. Pence said all he wanted in that moment was to get the man out of danger.

He said he told the man to jump, ready to catch him, despite a recent injury sustained while playing football.

“About a month ago, I got diagnosed with a stress fracture on my back, so like when I was reaching my arms out to try and catch him, I tweaked my back a little bit,” Pence said.

The man did jump, and Pence successfully braced his fall.

But, when he looked back up, he said he saw the man’s wife still trapped upstairs as the smoke thickened. Pence said the man told him his wife was deaf, and when Pence looked back up at her he said she frantically signed to him.

“That she can’t breathe either, so I signed back to her, “The hallway is on fire. You need to jump now,'” he said. “She was very grateful. Actually when I helped her up she like hugged me for a minute and that’s how I knew that she was very thankful.”

When the two were safely on the ground, Pence said fire crews showed up and quickly got to work dousing the flames.

He said that’s when he walked the couple over to an ambulance to get the care they needed.

As for Pence, he said he didn’t want any attention and just walked back home. Because of that, while people knew someone saved the couple, no one except his parents knew it was him.

“I just thought it was something you should be doing every day, like looking out for other people and helping them when they need it the most,” he said.

Pence doesn’t consider himself a hero, but others would argue he is.

“Yeah I’d absolutely call him a hero,” Hamilton Fire Chief Mark Mercer said.

Hamilton Fire was assisted by crews from Ross Township and Fairfield that day. Mercer said he saw social media comments and heard rumors about an “unknown hero” and spent the days since searching for Pence.

WCPO partner Journal-News was finally able to identify him and notify fire officials.

“You just hope people have neighbors who are doing the right thing, and people, when they particularly have that opportunity to do that is very impressive — obviously speaks volumes about the character of this young man,” Mercer said. “A great young man, not afraid to go into action when it’s time to do that and made a huge difference in those people’s lives. We’re proud of him, we’re excited and we look forward to meeting him.”

Pence’s dad Dave said he’s incredibly proud of his son and said his heroism that day speaks to his dedicated and yet humble nature.

“Justin being an offensive lineman in football, he just goes to work and blocks for the running backs,” Dave said. The linemen never get their name in the paper for touchdowns — they just do their job. This is very similar to Justin’s response to waiting around after saving people and not feeling the need to get the fame.”

Quick thinking, bravery and sign language — it’s a combination seemingly out of a movie. For Pence, it was just his way to help others in need.

“Just treat others the way you want to be treated,” he said. “If one of your family members or someone is in a fire, I’d want someone else to help them out too.”

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