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Back-to-back fires rattle Emmitsburg

Sarah Harrington

(12/10) Two fires in early December rattled Emmitsburg, just as it was preparing to shift into high gear for the Christmas holiday. The latter of the two fires claimed two lives. With fire debris still present within sight of the townís Christmas tree, and the news of the first death only hours old, the town opted to forgo Christmas caroling associated with the annual Christmas tree lighting. Instead, the tree was lit to a moment of silence in remembrance of those who would not be in attendance that evening.

The first fire, on December 2, began in a storage room on the second floor of the building that houses Paulís Pit Stop liquor store. The fire caused extensive damage to the five apartments on the second floor, while Paulís Pit Stop suffered extensive water and smoke damage.

The smoke from the fire was detected by a cashier at the liquor store. Wayne Powell, spokesperson for the Vigilant Hose Company, said that the manager of the store sought out the source of the smell and discovered that a fire in the apartment areas above the store had erupted. He immediately contacted 911.

While the manager was in contact with 911, the cashier went to flag down Frederick County Sheriff Office Deputy Ben Whitehouse, who was driving down Seton Avenue. The cashier alerted Whitehouse that there was a man stuck inside his apartment. Whitehouse responded by breaking into the apartment area and bring resident James Ryder to safety. Ryder was in need of assistance during the fire, as he uses a walker to help him in getting around.

A "glitch" in the county fire dispatch system resulted in the failure of the automatic sounding of the VHC Fire siren as well as the corresponding paging of members of the company. Instead, VHC members were alerted to the fire by a backup alert system that sends a text message to a fire fighterís phone. The VHC then used a recently purchased app for smart phones called "I am Responding," to ensure all VHC members were notified of the fire. (The failure of the primary alert system however did not delay the timely response of the VHC. Subsequent investigation tied the "glitch" to a faulty relay at the country dispatch center, which has since been fixed.)

By the time the first VHC responders had arrived at the scene, heavy smoke filled the second floor of the building. VHCís first responders immediately confirmed that the apartments were empty and began to fight the fire.

According to Powell, the cause of the fire was the combustion of a cardboard box on the second floor, containing a shipment that the store had received earlier that day that was placed in the storage unit. The cardboard box was positioned too close to a hanging light bulb in the storage unit, resulting in the box heating up and causing a small fire which was not caught in time.

Luckily for residents who reside in the five apartments above the liquor store, the only true damage to their homes was the lingering smoke smell. Unfortunately, many of the residents did not have rentersí insurance.

According to Powell, the hallway on the second floor leading to the apartments will need to be re-painted and new light fixtures installed. In addition, the windows to all the apartments will need to be replaced. Once repairs have been completed, the residents will be able to return to their homes. Powell believes that the earliest residents will be able to return as soon as late January or early February.

The second fire occurred midday on December 7. Firefighters responded to a fire call at 112 West Main Street, opposite the VHC. Once again, the firefighters from five counties in Maryland and Pennsylvania were notified to help fight what would end up being the worst fire, fatality-wise, in the memories of many local firefighters. Wayne Powell noted that it had been over 25 years since the last person lost his life in a fire in the VHC response area.

Three people were pulled from the fire by members of the VHC. Geraldine Rachelle Jones, 74 years old, was pronounced dead at the scene. Jonesí husband, 69 year old Donnie Jones, and fellow resident, 43 year old Diane Lyn Meyer were both evacuated from the scene by medical helicopters. They were in critical condition.

Meyer was taken to Leigh Valley Hospital burn center where she was placed in critical care. She died December 8 from her burns. Mr. Jones was taken to R. Adams Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore where he is currently recovering.

The Frederick County Fire Marshall Office determined the cause of the second fire was the shoring out of an extension cord connected to holiday lights. "The extension cord was underneath a reclining chair [and] got entangled with the rocking mechanism of the chair which caused the failure of the extension cord," said Tim Clarke with the Frederick County Fire Marshalís office. The flames reached the upstairs apartment, burning Diana Meyer, 43, who later died from her injuries.

As a result of the fires, the VHC contacted the Red Cross to organize fire safety awareness visits throughout its response area. On December 12, Red Cross volunteers joined by VHC fire and rescue first responders went door-to-door promoting the importance of having working smoke detectors in homes. When smoke detectors were requested, they were installed. 78 homes were visited while 217 smoke detectors were installed on December 12 alone, with additional detectors installed throughout the remainder of the month. The first responders also provided safety tips to help residents prevent future fires, and plan emergency escapes routes.

As a result of the two fires, at least a dozen residents have been displaced from their homes. To assist these individuals the Emmitsburg Council of Churches created a "fire fund." Proceeds will be used to pay for temporary shelter and supplies such as food and clothing. In addition, the Seton Center opened its doors to the victims, and serves as a central repository to non-monetary donations. The fund has raised $6,800 to date, $700 of which was raised by the Emmitsburg Tattoo Company from its Acoustic Guitar Night Fire Fundraiser, which featured local musicians and food from Three Little Pigs BBQ and Catering. Anyone wishing to make a tax deductible contribution, may send a check made out to: ECC Fire Relief Fund, P.O. Box 812, Emmitsburg, 21727

In addition, when word was received that there were not adequate funds to give a proper burial for fire victim Diana Myers, the Jubilee Cashiers asked each customer if they would like to donate $1 or more to help cover the coast. The Jubilee also set out a 5-gallon bucket where customers could drop donations. Over the next 4 days the overwhelming generosity of the community became apparent and just over $2,600 was donated.

Rich Boyd, manager of the Jubilee, said: "I know our customers are wonderful caring people and this response really proved it. They have hearts of gold and are so giving. Emmitsburg, Thurmont, Rocky Ridge, Fairfield, Carroll Valley, and the surrounding area have such wonderful people. I feel very fortunate to live in this area."

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