ANNAPOLIS, MD – Sher Grogg won’t be getting a Christmas tree ever again.
“I’ll never look at a tree the same way again,” Grogg said Wednesday after relaying the story about a horrific house fire earlier this year that killed her brother, sister-in-law, three nieces and a nephew.
Grogg, who has become an advocate for residential sprinklers and Christmas tree safety, shared her memories of the Jan. 19 Annapolis fire for the first time with people attending the Leading and Life Safety Conference hosted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.
While the massive house or castle, as it was always referred to, had a state-of-the-art smoke detection system, it did not have sprinklers. Grogg said she doesn’t know why for sure just yet, but vows to find out.
The castle property is situated on a point surrounded by water, and there was an inground pool. “There was water all around them. But, not in the house where the fire started…”
Grogg told the audience: “Based on where they found the bodies, I’m sure my brother was fighting the fire while his wife, Sandy, ran to get the children.”
Don Pyle was found in the great room just feet from the tree.
Following an intense investigation, ATF officials ruled the fire was electrical, and blamed a power strip used for the lights. Sparks quickly ignited needles on the skirt, and then, the tree.
Sandy Pyle and two grandchildren, Wesley and Kaitlyn were found in a guest bedroom near the stairs of the great room, while Charlotte was located in another room nearby. Alexis was in another room across from the tree.
Grogg said a neighbor called 911 reporting she could see heavy fire coming from the castle. Documents showed the alarm company also tried to contact Sandy Pyle moments before a representative also called authorities. It was 3:30 a.m.
“When I got the call that the house had burned down, I asked how the family was. They said again the castle had burned down,” Grogg said. “I thought they would have gone out on the balconies off each bedroom…It wasn’t sinking in that they didn’t escape.”
Grogg said Christmas was always a special time for her family.
“Sandy always wanted a big tree. She’d say the bigger the better…They kept it up longer than usual so Don, who had been working over the holidays, could enjoy it. But, they had arranged to have it taken down on Jan. 20."
The days immediately following the fire were especially difficult as firefighters sifted through rubble to find the bodies.
“We told them we didn’t want to know as they made each discovery. It was hard enough, and the thought that some were still buried was unfathomable.”
As they tried to cope, the family’s thoughts also turned to the firefighters who were working at the site. “We arranged to have food delivered, and we sent hand warmers and things. It was what Don and Sandy would do…”
In the months that followed, Grogg would wake up about 3:30 each morning thinking about her brother and the loss. But, she also decided to delve into a subject she’d never explored – firefighting, fire prevention and safety.
“I would never go back to sleep so I spent the time on the Internet learning things like flashover, something the firefighters had told us about.”
Grogg said among the things she quickly learned was that Christmas trees are a torch.
“Sandy was meticulous. She watered the tree almost daily. And, the stump they found hadn’t burned, meaning it was submerged…”
The New York resident, who always spent Christmas with her family in the castle, said her Internet search led her to Vision 20/20, the NFFF and others including Vickie Pritchett, of Common Voices.
“I’ve been impressed how all these people are connected. Everyone has been so helpful and encouraging.”
They also arranged for her to watch a flashover demonstration, which she said was difficult. “I was thinking about my brother’s last moments…”
Even though she doesn’t like speaking in public, she says she’s ready to talk about not only Christmas tree safety but the importance of residential sprinklers.
“I’d like to see tags on trees telling people when they were cut down.”
Grogg said she wants to do everything possible so another family doesn’t have to go through what hers has. “I really think sprinklers would have made a difference.”