By Keeli Parkey
A true hometown hero took center stage at a meeting of the Unicoi County Board of Education
Jacob McKinney – the 10-year-old fifth grader who ran back to a burning house to save his cousin from a February blaze – was recognized by Director of Schools John English and the board on Thursday, March 10.
“It is an absolute honor to have a very special young man with us,” English said during the meeting. “Several weeks ago there was a very unfortunate incident involving a fire. Several folks from the home and some children experienced burns from that.”
The Erwin Record previously reported that the blaze was reported around 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 7 after it was discovered by an elderly female. Eleven people were in the home on Unicoi Drive at the time, including McKinney and his cousin, 8-year-old Brianna Butler.
“(The elderly female) was sleeping on the couch and woke up to use the restroom,” Sheriff Mike Hensley said. “When she returned, the couch was on fire.”
The woman immediately notified the other occupants of the home and they exited the structure.
A Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department deputy was on Unicoi Drive when the call was dispatched and he arrived within moments, Hensley said.
“When the officer arrived, the home was completely engulfed in flames,” Hensley added. “It was a chaotic scene.”
After exiting the home, Butler attempted to go back inside the burning house to retrieve a toy her father had given her. It was then that McKinney saw her and ran to stop her and did just before an oxygen tank in the home exploded. Both Butler and McKinney were taken to Johnson City Medical Center, then airlifted to Vanderbilt Hospital. McKinney was released, but Butler remained in the hospital’s burn center.
“I’m very happy to report tonight that Brianna is doing very well,” English said during the meeting on Thursday. “… I have had the privilege to visit her a couple of times. She is a very spunky little gal. She has fought and scratched and clawed. The reports we were getting early didn’t sound good. Her spirit has allowed her to fight this to the point that she will soon be able to come home.”
On Monday, English told The Erwin Record that Butler was released from the Vanderbilt burn center over the weekend and came home.
“I think it is safe to say that the reason we are able to give that kind of report is because of the young man we are here to honor tonight,” English also said Thursday. “There is no question about that.”
After introducing McKinney to the packed crowd in the boardroom, English said that McKinney is “one of the neatest young men that you’ll ever be around.”
“The word hero gets thrown around a lot,” English continued. “Sometimes it’s warranted and sometimes it’s not, but I can certainly say that this young man is an absolute hero. … Most people run away from fire and save themselves. This young man saw an opportunity to protect someone who is very dear to him, so he ran toward the fire to try to save (Brianna). The first time I got to talk to Jacob about this, he was real nonchalant about it, saying, ‘Well, of course I did’.”
English then read a proclamation passed by the Tennessee State Legislature in honor of McKinney and presented the 10-year-old with a framed copy.
“We are extremely proud of you,” English then said to McKinney.
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The board also recognized Unicoi County High School swimmer Kaleb Clawson for his successful season and state meet appearance.
“Kaleb is an extremely hard worker,” swim coach Jonathan Kenney told the board.
Kenney said Clawson qualified in the 100-meter fly with a seventh-place finish at the region meet and just missed qualifying in the 50-meter freestyle by one second. At the state meet, he improved his 100-meter fly time.
“We are proud of all our student athletes,” English said. “Being a student athlete is extremely difficult. There are a lot of extra hours before school and after school. … (Kaleb) put in a lot of hard work and dedication to get to state.”
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In other business, the board:
• Approved trips for several school groups, including UCHS Mock Trial, UCHS drama and UCHS HOSA;
• Heard program updates from Federal Programs Director Jan Sutphin, the UCHS National Honor Society, UCHS Book Club and Love Chapel Elementary faculty who recently visited the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta;
• Awarded a bid for Internet services to use Education Networks of America to Metro Nashville.
The board is scheduled to meet in a work session on April 11 at 5 p.m.; its next regularly scheduled meeting is set for April 14 at 6 p.m.