Probe Continues Into Blaze that Claimed Ind. Firefighter

Aug. 07--NEW CARLISLE -- Authorities may spend several days investigating a fire that killed a New Carlisle volunteer firefighter and injured another when a roof collapsed at the scene of an industrial building fire just west of the town Tuesday night.

Assistant Fire Chief Jamie Middlebrook and firefighter Matt O'Donnell were setting up a large hose inside K-Fex Excavating and Trucking, 5885 N. 800 East, when the roof collapsed, officials said.

Middlebrook died at the scene, while O'Donnell was treated for a broken ankle, among other minor injuries. O'Donnell was taken to Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Michigan City and had been released Wednesday afternoon.O'Donnell was rescued by another firefighter, but rescuers could not immediately find Middlebrook underneath the burning debris, LaPorte County Sheriff Mike Mollenhauer said.

Middlebrook's body was recovered about 50 feet inside a doorway with help from a backhoe sifting through the charred rubble of the building, which contained several vehicles and pieces of equipment, Mollenhauer said.

Assistant state Fire Marshal Robert Johnson said firefighters first responded to K-Fex, just west of the St. Joseph County line, about 9 p.m. Tuesday. The initial crew of 20 firefighters had just called for backup when the roof collapsed.

At about 11 p.m., the state fire marshal's office received word that a firefighter may have died in the line of duty, Johnson said, adding that dispatchers had received a "mayday" call from the scene at some point. It was not clear if the mayday call came from Middlebrook or O'Donnell, he said.

Authorities also received reports of at least one explosion at the fire scene, which may have been caused by propane tanks, Johnson said.

Mollenhauer, who was at the fire with officers from his department handling traffic control and other matters, said there were firefighters from at least 15 other departments from Indiana and Michigan at the scene.

"Very sad and solemn" is how Mollenhauer described the mood after it was evident that Middlebrook would not come out of the burning structure alive.

"It can happen. We know it can happen but we've been very fortunate that it hasn't happened in our area for quite some time. These are volunteers that go out there and try to save property and save victims from fire and here this one's the victim of a fire," said Mollenhauer.

Middlebrook's father, Robert, is also a member of the New Carlisle Fire Department who was at the scene when his son was trapped, according to LaPorte County Coroner John Sullivan.

The cause of the blaze was still being investigated by the fire marshal's office, while the sheriff's department is investigating Middlebrook's death.

LaPorte Fire Chief Andy Snyder said some of his department's heavy equipment was sent to the fire scene to help determine the cause.

The fire destroyed the metal, barnlike structure, with flames burning through the roof. It took firefighters several hours to extinguish the blaze.

Emergency workers stood at attention as Middlebrook's body was removed from the rubble, and he was later honored with a large American flag hanging from atop a ladder truck outside the New Carlisle fire station.

"They're all volunteers," Mollenhauer told The Associated Press. "Talk about putting your life on the line. That's the way those guys are. They're a brotherhood. They do it for the community."

Gov. Mike Pence issued a statement saying Middlebrook died protecting others.

"Indiana mourns the loss of a true Hoosier hero," Pence said. "On behalf of the state, the first lady and I extend our condolences to his family and friends and hold them in prayer during this difficult time."

 

 

Copyright 2014 - South Bend Tribune, Ind.

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