WEST BURLINGTON -- The Pennsylvania State Police continue to investigate the cause of an early morning blaze that claimed the lives of three people Wednesday.
The victims, two women and a man, were called by friends, family and neighbors, "pillars of the community."
John E. Hulslander, 69, and his wife, Marjorie D. Hulslander, 65, both of West Burlington Township, along with Marjorie's sister, Patricia Stephenson, 69, of Towanda, died in the 1:30 a.m. blaze, which completely destroyed the couple's two-story farmhouse and brought members of five fire departments to the scene.
The farmhouse, along with a barn and two sheds, was located along Route 6, outside the borough of Burlington. The house was the only structure damaged in the blaze. Stephenson was said to be spending the night with the couple.
John Hulslander was well-known as a West Burlington Township supervisor and, along with his wife, was one of the founding members of the Burlington branch of the Troy Fire Department, according to close friend Jerri Renzo and Roy Vargson, fire chief of the Troy Fire Department. "They were my best friends," Renzo said tearfully as she looked at the Hulslanders' farmhouse, charred remains of a one-time family home. She said she had known the couple close to 40 years.
Outside and inside the home, fire marshals Tim Young and Bernie Kizes, and other troopers, took photographs, surveyed, measured and brought in a dog trained to sniff out accelerants.
Officials with the police department said late Wednesday evening that an update on the investigation would most likely not come until Thursday morning and that investigators would return to the scene "first thing in the morning." Troopers would not say on Wednesday morning and afternoon what they were looking for, or whether or not they believed the fire was suspicious. Around 12:30 p.m., more than nine hours after the blaze was reported, a state police helicopter flew low over the scene several times to take what Sgt. Lou Altieri of the North Towanda Barracks crime unit called surveillance shots from the air.
Altieri said there were many variables that needed to be looked at in regard to the cause of the fire. Bradford County Deputy Coroner Jim Bowen said the investigation into the causes of death are "continuing to be investigated at this point." As for the Hulslanders' lives, Renzo and Vargson said John Hulslander was a retired fireman as well as a longtime farmer. John Hulslander was one of the main people who pushed for a satellite fire station to be placed in Burlington for the residents of the borough and the surrounding townships, Vargson said.
Renzo said Hulslander had farmed in one way or another for as long as she could remember. She added that John Hulslander had grown up on the farm, which belonged to his family.
Marjorie Hulslander was a county auditor at one time and was also involved with the Bradford County Republican Women and was a past president. She was also involved in the Troy Fire Department's Ladies Auxiliary and, along with her husband, the Towanda Elks and the Bradford County Republican Party.
Her sister, Patricia, was well-known in the county after working for more than 20 years in the Towanda District Justice Office, before retiring several years ago. Patricia worked for Magistrates James Cox and James Powell.
Patricia was also involved in the Towanda Elks Lodge, like her sister and brother-in-law. She was also a member of the Towanda Area Senior Citizens. She had two sons, Joseph and Jack of Towanda. Her husband, Kenneth D. "Denny" Stephenson, passed away in March of 2002. Renzo said the Hulslanders' had three children, Cindy in Nicholson, Pa.; Tom, in Tunkhannock, Pa.; and Tim, who lives at Mountain Lake.
Vargson said firefighters were called to the scene of the fire around 1:39 a.m. He believes someone driving by saw the fire and stopped by the Bradford County Correctional Facility to call 911, but could not confirm this.
Vargson said that when emergency officials were dispatched and even when they began to arrive on scene they did not immediately know that someone was inside. After observing cars in the driveway, however, they expected the homeowners were either inside or had gone somewhere with someone else, he said.
Vargson said it became clear as the fire progressed that there were victims inside the home. Firefighters were not able to enter the home due to the flames and heat and Vargson said much of the east side of the home was already engulfed as firefighters began to get their fire equipment ready. "I hate to say this, but there was no way to get in by that point," Vargson said. "It was way too late." Vargson said the fatal fire was the first he has ever responded to where he actually knew the people and one of very few fatal fires he has responded to during his time as fire chief.
He said fighting fires is always difficult in a small area where firefighters know all their neighbors, but realizing that there might be victims in the Hulslander home, "certainly didn't make it (fighting the fire) any easier."
The fire itself took about an hour and a half to contain and once it was clear there were victims inside, Vargson requested the Bradford County Dispatch to contact the Pennsylvania fire marshals. The fire departments who responded to the fire included Troy, North Towanda, East Smithfield, Canton and South Creek. Ambulances from Western Alliance EMS and Memorial EMS also responded, Vargson said.
Vargson said firefighters from Troy had responded to an electrical fire in the couple's barn about a month before and that the fire was found to be accidental and electrical only in nature. It damaged part of the barn, but did not cause any major structural damage.
Alfred Tice, chairman of the West Burlington Township supervisors, said the board of supervisors' regular April meeting will be held Monday. There will be a great void at the meeting considering John Hulslander frequently shared stories during the meeting about the "old days" and reminisced about events that happened or people he had known, he said.
Tice said Hulslander and fellow supervisor Leon Darrow frequently shared stories during the meetings, so much at times that Tice said with a laugh that he would have to stop them so the meeting could continue.
Tice added that Hulslander was very proud he was from West Burlington and always wanted it written next to his name that he was John Hulslander of West Burlington -- not Burlington, not Troy, but West Burlington Township.
"He was a stickler for that," Tice said with a laugh. Tice said Hulslander and his wife were the most hospitable and generous people he knew. When someone stopped to visit them they offered the person food, drink -- whatever the individual wanted."Whatever they had to eat or to drink was yours for the taking," he said. "This is quite a loss for the community, quite a loss."