On Dec. 17, 2005, my department in Barre City, VT, responded to the worst fatal fire in our history. At a few minutes before 6 a.m., we were dispatched to a fire in a two-story wood-frame apartment building. The initial report was that there were people still in the building. The on-duty crew was met with heavy fire blowing from the second floor windows on side A and heavy smoke pushing through out. Additionally, the initial crew was advised, by bystanders, the apartment had two adults and four children still inside. The officer in charge quickly upgraded to a second alarm.
Before the arrival of the fire department, two Barre City police officers arrived on scene and attempted to enter the fire apartment, but were unsuccessful. They did make entry to the downstairs apartment and they reported a considerable amount of smoke inside. They stayed in the downstairs apartment, trying to listen for activity above them, but the smoke forced them out. These officers reported that they heard no smoke detectors coming from the second floor apartment, and incredibly, no smoke detectors sounding in the down stairs apartment. The detectors in the downstairs apartment were later tested and found to be operational.
Because of a water supply problem, initial crews conducted their searches without the protection of a hoseline. The fire conditions forced these crews out of the apartment two times before finally making it in through a bedroom window on the C side. In this room, an adult male was found and was extricated out the same window and down a ladder. At about this time, water had been established and the fire was effectively knocked down.
Crews next located three young girls together in one bedroom. Two were extricated down ladders and the third down an interior stairway. The next to be found was a young boy in another bedroom, who was extricated down an interior stairway. The final occupant to be found, an adult female, was found in the living room in the area of fire origin and was not extricated, for obvious reasons. In the end, a mother, three little girls and the little boy died. The father was airlifted to the nearest trauma center and has since recovered. A seventh occupant escaped on his own prior to our arrival and is also doing fine.
To add insult to injury, a few minutes after the last victim was transported to the hospital, we all learned that this family was related to our fire chief. All of a sudden, it wasn't someone else's tragedy anymore.
The area of origin was a living room couch. The exact cause has not been determined, but has been narrowed down to a cigarette, candle or Christmas lights. Based on the investigation, it is believed this began as a smoldering fire and eventually became a flaming fire. The time it remained a smoldering fire is unknown.
Smoke Detectors Did Not Activate
The apartment had three hardwired smoke detectors - one in the family room, one in the master bedroom and one in the girls bedroom. There is a report that early on a bystander may have heard a smoke detector. As stated earlier, the police officers, who were on scene very quickly, did not hear any coming from either apartment. No one from the fire service heard any operating smoke alarms.
There are many other details and events of this fire that I could share with you. Acts of heroism, compassion and desperation and more played out. I suspect I would be preaching to the choir, however. On some level, we all have been there. But for the purpose of telling this story, enough has been said.
For the next few months, this fire was all we talked about. Some had opinions and all had questions. We just couldn't figure out how so many people could get caught in a fire, still in their bedrooms, with working smoke detectors. In the early spring of 2006, we learned why, and have been doing our best to keep it from happening ever again. What I tell you next is all we didn't know.