(USA Today) TABERNACLE, N.J. — Volunteer firefighter Jason Penwell jumped on the first truck dispatched to a house fire Wednesday afternoon on Firelane Road in a neighboring town.
The road is a long one he knows well, because he lives along it in the Pinelands of Southampton.
When Tabernacle Fire Chief Dave Smith got there in his car first and dispatched details via radio from the scene, Penwell realized the address was his. He arrived moments later to see the flames destroy his house and all the family belongings.
Smith said no one was injured, but one of the family dogs was killed in the blaze.
Within a day, an online fundraising campaign set up by Tabernacle Fire Company No. 1 already exceeded its $10,000 goal.
"I cannot express how grateful we are for each and every one of you and the overwhelming community support from people who don't even know us. I feel a thank you is not enough and wish there was a way to express my appreciation,” Penwell said Thursday when he, his wife Stephanie and four children took temporary refuge at the Tabernacle firehouse on Hawkins Road.
“Those who know me know I'm never short of words," he said. "I really don't know what say other than thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Pennwell, who also is an active-duty Air Force technical sergeant, said Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst planned to arrange housing for him by Friday. Penwell is also a firefighter at the base.
Smith said the fire company set up the GoFundMe page as an avenue for donations from people who have been reaching out to the Penwell family.
“The house was a total loss. Thankfully, the family members were safe and were not home at the time,” the chief said.
The cause of the blaze has not been determined and is under investigation by the Burlington County Fire Marshal's Office.
"I happened to be at the firehouse at the time and never thought it could be my house," Penwell recalled. "All I had time to do was pull up my suspenders (on his fireman's overalls), jump on the truck and answer the call."
The chief said Pennwell's oldest son was a "brave" kid for rushing into the house and saving most of the family dogs just as the chief arrived at the scene.
Penwell, said his son, a high school freshman, saw the fire when he arrived home on a bus about 3:30 p.m., jumped off with a few friends, went inside and was able to save five of the six family dogs.
"The house was filled with smoke, but he stayed calm and opened some windows for ventilation," Penwell said.
It took firefighters from Southampton, Tabernacle, Woodland and other departments until after 4:30 p.m. to extinguish the blaze. Smith said the two-story house was so badly damaged and unsafe that it had to be bulldozed that night.
“Of course we are all upset," Penwell said Thursday, "but today is day one of recovery and I have to stay positive for my kids.”