Community aids Warren Township burn victim

MARIETTA — A Warren Township family continued to stick close to the bedside of 17-year-old Austin Wittekind Thursday, two days after the teen was seriously burned in a fire that destroyed his home.

Leslie Wittekind said her son remains in critical condition but is responding to her.

“I talk to him and he does open his eyes,” she said. “Yesterday he tried to grab my hand.”

Austin suffered burns to his face, hands, arms and back when he tried to save his pets during the blaze at 1485 Hanna Road around 5 a.m. Tuesday. Seven cats, two dogs, a hedgehog and guinea pig perished in the fire. A cause has not yet been determined.

Leslie Wittekind said Austin is now “semi-conscious” but has to be heavily sedated each time his burns are cleaned. He is scheduled to undergo skin grafts this weekend on his arms, hands and back, she said.

The burns are estimated to cover about 20 percent of his body.

“He’s still in serious, serious condition,” said his grandmother, Nancy Wittekind. “There’s a long way to go in the recovery.”

The family remains with Austin at The Ohio State University Medical Center in Columbus. The home Leslie and Austin shared with Austin’s friend, Zane McGowen, 17, was destroyed in the fire, along with the family car.

Those who are interested in helping the family are asked to call Nancy Wittekind at 740-373-8249.

Arriving soon at the hospital will be a package full of valentines from classmates and staff at the Washington County Career Center, where Austin and McGowen were students in the Auto Collision program.

“We got a whole bunch of cards and everybody in the class wrote a note for him,” said instructor Gary Ruble. “We just wanted him to know that we’re concerned and we hate that this happened.”

Ruble said Austin, a junior, is one of the best students in the program.

“He’s a real go-getter and a pleasure to talk to,” he said. “He’s just a great kid all the way around.”

The school’s administrators visited Austin in Columbus Wednesday evening, said career center Secondary Assistant Director Kaye Spiker.

“He was still in the ICU and still on the ventilator but he did recognize us,” she said. “He opened his eyes a little bit and I asked if he knew who we were. He nodded.”

Spiker said they brought monetary donations along with a poster signed by students to decorate the room.

“He can’t have flowers or anything in there so we left the poster,” she said. “We told him we left it for him and he nodded.”

Spiker said McGowen has not left his best friend’s side but is expected back at school next week. His classmates will be prepared to support him, she said.

“We’ve spoken to the students and reassured them that Austin is pulling through and we anticipate a recovery though it will be a long one,” she said. “We talked to them about how to be positive when Zane comes back and how to interact…both young men are very well-liked in that class. They spend a lot of time together and become a family.”

Spiker said anyone who wants to drop off donations for the Wittekinds can bring them to the career center during school hours. Most necessary now are cash, gas cards and clothing. Once the family is back in the area, household items will be needed.

The student council has planned a Hat Day fundraiser Tuesday to raise money for the family and is brainstorming more ways to help, Spiker said.

Leslie Wittekind said she’s been thankful for the community support she’s received this week.

“There’s been a real outpouring of people who want to help,” she said.  “I want to thank everyone for their concern and prayers. We have some bumps in the road to get through but we will get through it.”