September 14, 2009

Poughkeepsie teacher lauded for saving two teens

Author: Jennifer E. O'Brien
Source: New York Teacher
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Jerry Piacente

To hear teacher Jerry Piacente humbly talk of saving two teenagers from a burning van on Father's Day weekend, you gain new appreciation for the term "superhero."

With the help of his two sons, Piacente managed to rescue 17-year-old Dillon Von Wagner and 16-year-old Caitlin Kelly from their overturned, burning van. Alerted to the crash by his son, Joseph, Piacente said the van was almost completely engulfed in flames when he arrived.

"One kid was lying under the vehicle, Dillon…so Joseph met me at the car and we grabbed him," said Piacente, a member of the Poughkeepsie Public School Teachers Association.

As Piacente and his son carried a disoriented Von Wagner away from the burning vehicle, they heard screams coming from inside.

Crawling amid the flames, Piacente entered the vehicle from the passenger side window and managed to free a trapped Kelly from her seat belt and drag her by the ankles to safety.

For Piacente, a high school math teacher, there was no option but to get involved. "When I heard the screaming, all I thought was I could not let someone burn to death," he said, "because I knew somebody in there did not have much time."

In the days that followed, Piacente did not draw much attention to his heroic act, but his colleagues could not let it go by unnoticed. The district's retirement luncheon the following week was revamped to honor Piacente's selfless act.

Debbie Kardas, president of the Poughkeepsie local, joked that had it been up to the low-key Piacente, nobody would have known what he did.

"We have two police officers in the building and I had to tell them," she said.

Piacente, who has been teaching for 13 years, is known in the district as a "child advocate who loves his students," Kardas said.

She has nominated Piacente for NYSUT's Lifeline Award.

Piacente prefers to give credit to his sons.

He said it was fortunate that son Joseph called him first. "If he had just called 911, there is no way that girl would have survived because that car was totally engulfed in flames one minute after I pulled her out," he said.

Son Jason, meanwhile, ran down the road to direct rescue vehicles and keep other vehicles from crashing into the accident scene.

In August, through an NBC-TV sponsored reunion, Piacente met the rescued teenagers and their grateful families.

His own daughter is about the same age as Kelly, and he says his heroic actions that day were fueled by his values.

"I just couldn't, in good conscience," he said, "do nothing."