Teen hops on ATV to help Cedaredge neighbors

James TenNapel talks about the actions of his son, J.D., right, who was recovering from first- and second-degree burns from an all-terrain vehicle ride Friday, when he tried to warn and help neighbors during a wildfire that broke out near Cedaredge. J.D. recounted seeing blisters forming on his arm as he rode through a tunnel of fire, his ATV slowing as the fire sucked oxygen out of the engine.

Cross a teenage Evel Knievel with Tim Tebow and you have J.D. TenNapel.

The 15-year-old high-school quarterback in waiting on Friday rode through flames in a frantic effort to warn others of danger, then phoned from his hospital bed concerned about crews arriving to fight a blaze near his home north of Cedaredge.

TenNapel, badly burned and blurry, worried that his all-terrain vehicle needed gas if volunteers had to use it.

A “hero” tag was fresh Saturday morning for TenNapel at Delta County Memorial Hospital, where nurses popped blisters and applied medicine on his right arm, charred from wrist to shoulder with a second-degree burn. TenNapel has first- and second-degree burns on the right side of his face, his back and right leg. He counts himself lucky.

“They told me if I would have had a shirt on it would have caught fire,” TenNapel said, wincing in pain as a nurse gingerly dabbed ointment on wounds.

TenNapel thought of others at every turn Friday.

Fresh off cutting the grass at the family’s home on Timothy Road, TenNapel had pondered a run through the sprinkler with his golden retriever, Merle, when he saw the smoke about a quarter mile north. He sprinted to his ATV and sped down the road at speeds estimated by his father around 50 mph.

He insists he wasn’t prompted by anyone to go.

“It was just the right thing to do,” TenNapel said. “Nobody was there yet.”

Black with smoke

TenNapel first arrived at a home where he said a woman was trying to fight 50-foot, or larger, flames with a garden hose.

“She was just panicked,” he said. “I told her to call 911. I knew an elderly lady lived up the road so I kept on going.”

TenNapel came across another family, already out of their home.

He abandoned plans to reach the elderly woman after flames jumped the road behind him. Soon, flames licked each other from both sides of the road, creating something of a hellish dome of fire.

“I could see my dad on the other end about a tenth of a mile away. … It was almost pitch black with smoke,” he said. “I didn’t want my dad to come through that looking for me.”

TenNapel described the tunnel of fire as 30 to 50 feet long.

What to do? Floor it.

He felt heat rise as he churned closer.

“Probably about 20 yards in it was getting really hot and the engine just gave out,” he said.

Firefighters would later surmise that intense heat sucked oxygen from the ATV’s engine, causing the machine to sputter dangerously slow.

“I’d say it got down to 10 to 15 mph,” he said. “The worst thing I could do was get off. … I looked at my arm and saw white bubbles popping up.”

He eventually extracted himself.

“I just remember thinking, ‘Dear God, I just sent my kid through a fire,’ ” said J.D.‘s father, James.

“He got all the way through it and started beating his arms, and that’s when the flesh started falling off … he’s still riding,” James TenNapel said.

The first question on the boy’s mind? What happened to the elderly woman his son couldn’t reach, James TenNapel said.

Ignoring instructions to return home and get care, J.D. TenNapel instead sped on to the family’s next-door neighbor, ran inside and yelled for anybody.

“She (the neighbor) didn’t know there was a fire,” J.D. TenNapel said. “I’m going on adrenaline.”

They drove to safety as first-responders arrived, and J.D. TenNapel was swept away in an ambulance. But not before he gave instructions to a police officer about the elderly woman in the home he couldn’t reach.

What followed caused James TenNapel to collapse in prayer on the ground, thankful.

From his hospital bed, J.D. TenNapel phoned his father, concerned and under the impression the ATV he had ridden was out of gas because of the sputtering engine.

“We’d basically left the keys out for the first-responders if they wanted to use it for rescue,” said James TenNapel. “(J.D.) didn’t want them getting stuck somewhere.”

The ATV had a half-full tank of gas, he said.

“It was lack of oxygen, not lack of fuel, that caused it to slow down,” James TenNapel said. “That just tore me up when I saw it. He didn’t realize the grave danger he was in.”

James TenNapel said he watched as the elderly woman, located by firefighters thanks to his son’s directions, was safe in the hands of a rescuer.

“She needed help getting in the ambulance,” he said.

Knows road well

James TenNapel on Saturday said his son’s immediate concern was the health of his right arm. The boy has been named starting quarterback for his freshman football team this fall at Montrose High School.

Relics of home Saturday hung on the walls of his hospital room, including a poster of his hero, Tim Tebow. He fell asleep around 6 a.m. or so after a restless night, missing a scheduled interview with a news producer from CNN. Nobody much cared.

“It’s hard to sleep because I keep waking up thinking about how bad it could have been,” J.D. TenNapel said. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”

At least one neighbor bearing chocolates had paid respects early Saturday to the hospital room. TenNapel said he and his ATV commonly cruise the same road where his heroics played out on Friday.

“All those neighbors probably don’t like me because I go so fast,” he said. “I think they might now.”


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