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Gone but not forgotten
The fires of winter 1950-51


Several years ago the Historical Society received the following e-mail regarding a fire that occurred in the Winter of 1950-51. Recently we were able to dig up originally news stores.  Much to our surprise and sadness, we discovered that there was not one fire, but two fires that winter that collectively claimed the lives of 7 children and one adult.  The Wills fire of Dec 2nd, 1950, and the Springer fire February 6th, 1951.

Both fires occurred on properties within sight of each other on what was called 'mountain' land, the vernacular name given to properties of poor individuals living in the hills to the south-west of Emmitsburg. Roads in this area were usually only poorly maintained single lane dirt roads, often impassable in poor weather conditions. 

"My grandmother asked me to write you this email to ask you if you perhaps are familiar with this story that happened in 1951 to her family. The Springer family. Four of her siblings burned up in a fire at home, while waiting to eat dinner.

One of my grandmothers older brothers was supposed to be bringing home kerosene for the stove but instead of getting it the right way, he was taking it from a neighbor who caught on to what he was doing, and replaced the kerosene with gasoline. So that day when the children sat down to eat at the table disaster happened. The mother not knowing what had been done by either party her son or the neighbor, put the gasoline in the stove and the explosion happened. All four children caught on fire. John was 8, Alice was 7, Donald was 10. I believe, and little baby Gary was only 3 years old. To make matters worse when the people came to help they had a hard time reaching the house to the children. It was thought that at least little Gary would make it for on the way to the hospital he talked about the cows he saw while en route to the hospital. Sadly none of them made it.

The sisters at the Seton School so graciously donated a head stone where all four children were laid in rest together next to the gate on the side of the school. My grandmother says she can still remember all the children lined up by the fence to say goodbye with the sisters there as well. I have some photos of the children, the two oldest boys together, Alice by herself, and Gary being held by my grandmother.

She wanted to know if you know of the things that used to be written about the children. She remembers that for awhile every so often someone from Emmitsburg would write about them. Is there anyway to get a copy of this? Thank you so much."

The fire referred to in the above e-mail was the Springer Fire of February, 1951.  Below is the newspaper account of this fire.

3 Children Die from Kerosene Blast
Fourth Is In Critical Condition

Tragedy In Home In Isolated Section Near Emmitsburg;
 Others Are Also Hurt

Wednesday February 7, 1951 - The News (Frederick)

Three children are dead, another is in a critical condition and their mother and older sister are recovering from burns sustained it kerosene explosion in the kitchen of their isolated home approximate two miles north of Mt. St Mary's College Tuesday afternoon.

Dead are Alice Louise Springer, Donald D. Springer, 10, and John Wayne Springer, 7, children of M.r and Mrs. Charles Springer. In critical condition with third-degree burns is Gary Allen Springer, 3.

The little girl died at 9:30 o'clock last night at Warner Hospital in Gettysburg. Donald died at 3:51 a.m., and John at 6:48 a. m. today, all from third-degree burns over the upper parts of their bodies. There was considerable doubt that Gary, the baby of the family would recover.

The mother, Mrs. Martha Z. Springer, sustained severe third-degree burns about the hands and although she was able to return home from the Warner Hospital after treatment, she was still suffering considerable pain. Mary Ellen Springer, 18. the oldest sister, escaped with minor burns to her hands.

Saves House

A friend of the 18-Year-old girl, Charles Knott, Jr., 20, of Thurmont, Route 2, who was visiting in the Springer home at the time, was credited by the mother with saving the house from destruction. Knott also sustained burns about the hands and, with Mary Ellen, was treated at Warner Hospital and discharged.

State Trooper Kenneth D. Bond investigating, said it appeared the fire in the stove had burned low possibly because some damp wood was being used, and Mrs. Springer took a two-gallon can containing about a gallon of kerosene and poured some in the stove.

The kerosene can had been behind the stove and was warm. It appeared, the trooper said, that fire shot back into the can and exploded it. The large container was "spread," he said, while there was no indication of any explosion of the stove.

The can evidently went onto the floor where the young children were playing and caught their clothes aflame. Before they could be stopped. all of them had run outside. Mrs. Springer, it was understood, caught up with Gary, the baby, and smothered the flames on him.

Child Runs 200 Feet

John reportedly ran about 200 feet into the woods before he could stopped and the fire beaten out. Mary Ellen and Knott finally extinguished the flames about the children and Knott beat out the fire which had spread to window frames of the room. These were blistered by the heat. No fire alarm was sounded.

The house is in a wooded section some distance from a roadway of any kind. It was necessary to go approximately a mile to telephone the Emmitsburg V. F. W. ambulance which came to the scene and rushed the burned to Warner Hospital. The children had to be carried approximately a mile to a point where the ambulance could get to them.
Charles Springer, the father, works in a machine shop at Waynesboro. Pa., and had not returned at the time of the fire around four o'clock.

The bodies were to be turned over to S. L. Allison, funeral director at Emmitsburg and Fairfield. Pa. No funeral arrangement had been made this morning. The scene of yesterday's fire is within a short distance of the Wills home which burned in early December, cremating a mother and three children.

Fourth Child Fire Victim

Thursday Feb 8th, 1951 - The News (Frederick)

Fourth fatality of Tuesday evening’s flash fire at Annandale, near Emmitsburg, Gary Allen Springer, 3 died Wednesday at 1:50 p.m. at Annie M. Warner General Hospital, Gettysburg, Pa.

Youngest member of the family of Mr. And Mrs. Charles Springer, baby Gary Allen was the last of four children to die of third-degree burns within 20 hours following a kerosene explosion in the kitchen of their isolated home approximately two miles north of Mount St. Mary’s College.

Earlier fatalities were, Alice Louse Springer, 6; Donald D. Springer, 10, and John Wayne Springer, 7.

The little girl died at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at Warner Hospital in Gettysburg. Donald died at 3:57 a.m. and John at 6:48 am, Wednesday, all from third degree burns over the upper parts of their bodies.

Funeral Services Held For Victims of Explosion

Monday Feb 12, 1951 - - The News (Frederick)

Joint funeral services were held, at St. Joseph's Catholic church in Emmitsburg this morning at nine o'clock for the four little victims of a kerosene explosion which
set their clothing afire in an isolated home near Mt. St. Mary's College last Tuesday evening.

The burns which were inflicted brought death to Aline Louise Springer 6, Tuesday night, and her brothers Donald D. Springer Jr., John Wane Springer, and Gary Allen Springer, 3 on Wednesday.

They were the children and Mr. And Mrs. Charles Springer. The mother was unable to attend the funeral because of severe burns to her hands and arms which she sustained in attempting to beat out the flames. It was understood she would probably have to under-go additional hospital treatment. She was taken to Warner Hospital when the children were removed there and discharged after treatment.

The church was as filled for the service and members of St. Joseph's parochial school and Emmitsburg Public School attended as a body. There were many floral emblems. All four of the bodies were placed in one casket.

The funeral was conducted by Rev Francis Stauble The pall-bearers were Melvin and Edward Stouter, Lee Jane, Donald Tegelei, Guy wetzel, and William Wetzel. Burial was in a single grave the church cemetery. S A. Allison.

Historical Society Note:

In researching the events related to this article, the story that one of the "brothers was supposed to be bringing home kerosene for the stove but instead of getting it the right way, he was taking it from a neighbor who caught on to what he was doing, and replaced the kerosene with gasoline," was independently recited to us by Polly Baumgartner Shank, a neighbor, who recalled with clarity the events of the fire.

The supposition that the real cause of the fire, the pouring of gas into a lit stove,  is supported but the description that: "fire shot back into the can and exploded it." The jumping of fire is a characteristic of gasoline, not kerosene.   In addition, the fact that upon the can hitting the floor, the fire quickly spread "where the young children were playing and caught their clothes aflame," is also indicative of a gasoline fueled fire. 

Based upon these facts, and the first hand account of a surviving sister, we are left sadly to conclude that she is probably correct in her supposition, and that in fact, the fire was a result of her mother pouring gasoline, stolen by her son, into the kitchen stove.

Wills Fire, Dec 2, 1950

Autopsy to Be Performed on Fire Victims
State Orders Funerals Postponed; Investigation- Continuing
Mother, 3 Children Perished in Blaze

Thursday Dec 4th, 1950 - The News (Frederick)

State's Attorney Edwin F. Nikirk said Monday night that an autopsy, has been ordered in the investigation of the fatal burning of a woman and her three children when their home near Emmitsburg was destroyed Sunday morning.

Charles Edward Wills

Roland & Richard Wills

The funeral of the four victims scheduled this morning has been Postponed, he said, and will probably be held Wednesday morning.

Mr. Nikirk declined to discuss the investigation further pending the receipt of the report from the autopsy. He indicated that the autopsy take place in Baltimore today and a report should be available tomorrow.

Mother, Three Sons Perished

The announcement of the autopsy order was made Monday night after State Police had continued an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the fire. Mrs. Grace Elizabeth 31: Richard Bernard Wills. 6; Roland Eugene Wills. 3, and Charles Edward Wills, 1. perished in the fire when an oil stove in the living room is supposed to have explode and quickly destroyed the 4-room log residence as the mother and three children slept upstairs.

Sate Police reported that the husband and father, George Bernard Wills, 27, and his two brothers Carroll Christopher and James Anthony Wills, were in the living room when the fire started. George and James fled the flames and smoke, they said, but Carroll tried to get to the second floor to warn the mother and three children.

Wills Brothers Missing

When Carroll opened the door to go upstairs. they said. the Smoke and flames swept up the narrow stair-way driving Carroll out a second story window. When firemen arrived at the scene they reported that the three Wills brothers were not there and the house was enveloped in flames.

The State's Attorney and investigating officers gave no definite reason for ordering the autopsy. It was learned Monday that top-ranking State Police investigator had been called in to assist in the! investigation.

Grace & Cyrus Manahan

Funeral services for the victims been scheduled at 9 o'clock this morning with mass in St. Joseph's Catholic church, Emmitsburg. Officials said last night that he service would probably be held there at 10 o'clock Wednesday morning Interment will be in St. Mary's Catholic cemetery, Fairfield. Pa.

Mrs. Wills, who was the widow of Cyrus L. Manahan, was a daughter of the late Samuel and Mary Small Cool of Emmitsburg. She is survived by two children by her first marriage, Cyrus L. and Catherine Manahan, who at the time of the fire were visiting their grand-parents. Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Manahan, near Emmitsburg. Two brothers and four sisters also survive. They are John and Guy Coot of Baltimore; Mrs. George Peccher, Fairfield, Pa.; and Mrs. William Ott, Mrs. Roger Adams and Mrs, Carroll Wills, all of Emmitsburg.

Investigation Completed by State Police
 Autopsy Shows Four Emmitsburg Victims Burned to Death
Men Made Effort to Save Wills Family

Thursday Dec 7th, 1950 - The News (Frederick)

State Police apparently completed their investigation of the fire near Emmitsburg Sunday morning when a mother and three children were burned to death in their 4-room log house on the reservoir road.

Capt. Charles W. Magaha of the State Police said the husband of the dead woman, his two brothers and others in the neighborhood were questioned after the funeral services for the four victims and that the statements obtained showed agreement on what happened.

Earlier, State's Attorney Edwin F. Nikirk said the probe would continue at least until he had opportunity to talk with the officers and review the report of State Medical Examiner on the autopsies performed in Baltimore on Tuesday.

Capt. Magaha said the autopsies definitely determined that the woman and three small children were alive when they suffocated and burned. Deaths of all were attributed to carbon dioxide poisoning

Funeral Services Held

Mass was said in St. Joseph's, Catholic church at Emmitsburg yesterday morning at 10 o'clock for Mrs. Grace Elizabeth Wills, 31, and Richard Bernard. 6: Roland Eugene, 3, and Charles Edward. 1, all of wham died in upstairs bed-rooms. The house caught fire from an oil stove in a downstairs living-room. Rev. Michael O'Brien officiated, Burial was in St. Mary's Catholic cemetery, Fairfield. Pa.

Capt. Magaha said investigators have worked continuously since the fire to gather all available information After interviewing George B. Kills, the husband and father, an his brothers, James A. Wills and Carroll Wills, he said, the circumstances surrounding the tragedy seem to be: Mrs. Wills and the three children were asleep in the two upstairs bedrooms. George and James Wills were asleep in the living room, Carroll was asleep in the kitchen.

The first warring of fire came when James awoke to find his trouser leg afire and flames shooting up the walls of the living room around the stove.

James awoke George and they started towards the kitchen, where they ran into Charles in the dense smoke. James and George fled through the front door and they said as they opened the door they heard the stove roar as apparently a blast of fresh oxygen fed the fire. There was no stove explosion, the officers concluded.

Made attempt at Rescue

The investigators said the three men did make an effort to get to the sleeping women and the children, according to information gathered.

Carroll, who was unfamiliar with the upstairs, went up the inside stairs calling the women and children. He said he thought he heard one of the children say something but wasn’t sure of that. He kept calling and trying to get to the women and children, he said, until smoke and flames forced him out the window, which was at the head of the stairway.

In the meantime James had tried to get to the roof from a porch but lost his hold on the edge of the roof and fell back to the poach.

George said he want to the front of the house and tried to get to the second story window, calling all the time in an effort to arouse his wife and children. A neighbor, who lives about 75 feet from the burned residence, told the investigators that she looked out the window of her home and saw George trying to get to the window while shouting a warning to his wife.

House Poorly Constructed

The neighbor told the officers that flames were shooting ten-feet in the air from the door and windows of the Wills residence,

Capt. Magaha said he could understand why the log house quickly becalm a raging inferno after the fire started. He said the interior walls of the living room had been covered with boards from wooden boxes in which dynamite has been shipped, and the improvised insulation had been covered with wall paper.

The walls of the upstairs rooms had been insulated with corrugated cardboard from packing boxes and they too were covered with wallpaper.

Information obtained was to the effect that Mrs. Wills was sleeping in the front room with the youngest child and the other two children were in the rear room. It is supposed that the fire quickly burned the flooring under the front bedroom. The autopsy established that the victims suffocated before burning.

Bodies Badly Burned

All the bodies were badly burned.

The investigation revealed that the stove was a free burning pot-type and the oil can was in the house. The main source of oil was a 55-gallon drum on the outside. Officers questioned whether there was any oil in the can which was in the house.

The indicated that the exact cause of the fire has not been determine. They seemed satisfied that there was no explosion and the first warning of the fire was when James Wills awoke to find his trouser afire and the flames walling one corner of the living room.

Historical Society Note:

The Historical Society interviewed decedents of the daughter of Mrs. Wills by her first marriage to Cyrus L. Manahan. The daughter and her brother has been staying with their grandparents when word of the fire reached town.  When they arrived at the house shortly thereafter, they discovered their step-father, George Wills sitting in front of the house - drunk. According to the decedents, George, who was referred to in the family as 'boozer,' who was almost always drunk, and that while they couldn't prove it, blamed him for their mother's death. 

The children were taken by their paternal grandparents and never had anything to do with their step father again  "When my mother and her brother came across him in town, they would walk across the street to avoid contact." 

The children however were quite found of their step-father's brother, Carroll, who had fought to save their siblings. Married to their mother's sister, Carroll was also their uncle, and throughout the rest of his life, treated the children with kindness, and they loved him as a father. Both avoided ever mentioning the the name of his brother - their stepfather, ever.

Have  old newspaper clipping dealing with Emmitsburg history?
If so, send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net