Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Found: Citizen firefighter Ted Leon from Owatonna September 13, 2011

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READERS, WE’VE FOUND “Ted from Owatonna,” the passerby who Saturday afternoon stopped to extinguish a quickly-spreading fire on my neighbor’s deck.

Thanks to the quick action of Ted Leon, 47, an attorney at Federated Insurance in Owatonna, Kristin and Kevin Klocek’s Faribault house was saved from what both Ted and I believe could have been a devastating fire. (Click here to read my first blog post about the fire.)

Up until late Monday afternoon, I did not know Ted’s last name because he identified himself only as “Ted from Owatonna” when he left the scene, telling me he had to get going. He told me that much only because I asked. He was the first to arrive at the fire, to grab a garden hose.

But before I get into details about Ted’s firefighting, let me first tell you how we found Ted. And I say “we” because this was a joint effort that initially involved my blogging about the fire, followed up by Minnesota Public Radio’s Bob Collins linking to my story in his News Cut column, Faribault Daily News Managing Editor Jaci Smith learning of my post via Collins’ post and then the Faribault newspaper and its sister paper, The Owatonna People’s Press, publishing a “Do you know this man?” community alert on their websites that included a photo I shot once the fire was under control.

This photo was posted on the newspaper websites in an effort to locate "Ted from Owatonna."

A friend of Ted’s saw the online photo and contacted the Owatonna paper with Ted’s name and number. This I learned from Jaci Smith, who had called me earlier Monday for permission to use my photos and to ask me about the whole event.

Early Monday evening Ted called me, before I had an opportunity to phone him.

So, how then did Ted end up on Willow Street in Faribault at the precise moment the smoldering fire flared up on Kevin and Kristin’s deck?

He, his wife Kathe and their three youngest sons were on their way from The Defeat of Jesse James Days re-enactment in Northfield to 4 p.m. Mass at Divine Mercy Catholic Church. They are not members of the Faribault parish—they attend Sacred Heart in Owatonna—but because Kathe was participating in a St. Paul bike ride Sunday morning, they opted to attend the Saturday afternoon service in Faribault en route home. Their Owatonna church does not have a Saturday Mass.

Kathe told her husband she knew how to get to Divine Mercy and, says Ted, “That put us right in the path of the fire.”

It was nearing 4 p.m. when the Leons were driving in the 400 block of Willow Street. “I looked to the right and saw the fire pretty much engulfing the front deck,” Ted recalls.

As his mind computed the situation, he didn’t quite believe what he was seeing until he realized, “Oh, my goodness, that thing is on fire.” He pulled over, asked Kathe to call 911. Concerned that a grill and propane tank might be involved (they weren’t), Ted told his family to remain inside their van while he raced toward the fire.

He remembers only, in those initial moments, being “really focused in” on the fire and worried that people were inside the house. Ted had reason for concern. Kristin and her daughter Kaylee were inside, unaware of the blaze. As Ted ran up the steps and onto the deck toward the front door, he felt the intense heat of the actively-spreading fire.

He pounded on the screen door, peered through the screen and saw a little girl with her back to him. He ripped the screen and pounded again on the interior door and hollered “Fire, get out!” (or something like that; he doesn’t recall his exact words) until she noticed him.

In this photo you can see how the heat of the fire melted the vinyl siding.

“Once I knew they were aware of the fire, I ran around the house looking for a hose,” Ted continues.

He found two hoses connected to a single water spigot and grabbed one. As he pulled the hose toward the burning deck and the burning wood chips below the deck, the hose jerked from his hand. It was too short. He ran back to the spigot, flipped a lever that sent water to the second hose and “said a prayer it would be long enough.”

It was. The fire responded quickly to the water.

Days after the fire, Ted seems humbly surprised at the media attention. “I didn’t feel like it was a big deal,” he says of his actions.

Anyone would have done what he did, Ted claims. “It was my turn (to help someone).”

I agree with Ted, to a point. I’m not sure I could have gone onto that deck with the actively spreading fire. I saw those intense flames when I arrived just as Ted was grabbing that second hose.

“It’s nice to be able to put your faith into practice and help someone,” this Good Samaritan says.

Later, while worshipping at Divine Mercy, he offered prayers of thanksgiving. His clothes reeked of smoke, he says, and his legs felt sunburned from the intense heat of the fire.

Ted doesn’t remember me several times screaming, “Kristin and Kevin, get out!” He was, as he says, totally focused on extinguishing the fire and making sure everyone was out of the house.

I remain convinced, and so does Ted, that the entire house soon would have been engulfed in flames had he not spotted the deck fire and taken immediate action.

While on the scene of the fire, I spoke with Faribault firefighter Joel Hansen, who was very much interested in finding “Ted from Owatonna” and possibly presenting him with an award for his actions.

I told Ted Monday evening that I would see him at the awards ceremony.

FYI, A LITTLE BACKGROUND if you have not yet read my first post: I was working in my home office Saturday afternoon when my 17-year-old son, who was sitting on the couch working on his laptop, heard a car horn, looked up and saw the fire directly across the street. “The neighbor’s house is on fire!” he shouted.

I grabbed my camera, which was right next to my desk and raced out the front door, not even stopping to slip on shoes. Because of my background as a former newspaper reporter and now a current freelance writer, it was simply a natural instinct for me to grab my camera.

My first concern was for the safety of my neighbors, not photographing the fire. By the time I got to the front yard, Ted was pulling the second hose toward the fire. At that point flames were shooting up from the wood chips and from the deck.

Because there was nothing I could do at this point to help Ted fight the fire, I remained focused on my neighbors getting out. I was unaware that Ted had already pounded on the door and that the family knew about the fire.

When Kristin and Kaylee rounded the corner of the house after exiting via a door into the garage, I comforted them and made sure they were OK. By then the fire was under control and nearly out. Only then did I begin photographing the scene. At one point I also spoke on the phone with Kristin’s husband. She had called him earlier, but I wanted to assure him that his family was alright and update him on the situation.

A smoldering cigarette butt under the deck has been indicated by fire officials as the likely, as-yet unofficial, cause of the fire.

FOR THE LOCAL news story by Jaci Smith, click here to an article in The Faribault Daily News.


TO READ BOB COLLINS News Cut column, click here and check his Monday morning 5×8 entry.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling