The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

December 30, 2010

Fire destroys possessions of mother and 5 children

Nine departments respond to Windsor Township blaze

WINDSOR TOWNSHIP — If the smoke had not been so thick, if the power had stayed on, if her son had not pulled her out of the burning house, Barbara Smith believes she could have saved more of her family’s possessions from the flames Tuesday night.

“I was trying to save the house,” Smith said Wednesday afternoon as she rested in the Davis Road, Orwell Township, home of her friend Lesley Vas. “I was afraid we’d be homeless if we let the fire keep going.”

Thanks to the hospitality of friends like Vas, Smith and her five children are not homeless, but virtually all of their possessions were destroyed in the fire, which swept through the 1880 farmhouse at 5690 State Route 86.

The fire was discovered around 5:45 p.m., a few minutes after Smith, 42, got home from her job as a driver for Country Neighbor. Smith said her daughters Obreonna Mclean and Brandy Smith alerted her to smoke in the first-floor bedroom, where they were playing. Smith sent them and the other occupants of the house at the time — friend Angela Vitale, 2-year-old son Jacob Allen and 16-year-old Justin Smith — into the December night with just the clothes on their backs. Smith’s 14-year-old daughter, Brittany, was not at home at the time.

Assured that her family was safe, Smith went about securing their possessions.

“I ran downstairs to the basement, and the whole basement was on fire,” Smith said.

She recalls grabbing a bucket of water and throwing it on the fire, then running upstairs to escape the flames and smoke. On the way up, the power went out, and she had to grope her way through the darkness and smoke.

“When I went back in the house, I couldn’t see. I was trying to find the fire extinguisher,” she said.

She opened the outside entrance to the basement and tried scooping up snow to toss on the fire, but the flames rebuked her efforts as if she had thrown gasoline on them.

“We were trying to throw snow on the fire, but the fire kept coming out more and more,” she said.

After five or six attempts to save a few slivers of the children’s possessions, Smith was restrained from further entry by her son, Justin, and Windsor firefighters.

“He pulled me back,” Smith said. “I wanted to go back one last time.”

Windsor Fire Chief David Turk said Smith was transported to UH Geauga Medical Center and treated for smoke inhalation. Otherwise, there were no injuries to occupants or firefighting personnel.

Turk said he has not set a loss estimate for the fire, which is under investigation, but said it was the worst fire the department battled in 2010.

Windsor firefighters were in the process of clearing out from a carbon-monoxide call elsewhere in the township when they were called to the Route 86 blaze at 6:55 p.m. About 45 minutes into that fire, the firefighters were called to a chimney fire at a residence on Route 322, just east of Wiswell Road.

Turk said the Route 322 incident was dealt with quickly, but firefighters were on the Route 86 scene until 10:30 p.m. Support with water supply, equipment and manpower was provided by eight other departments: Middlefield, Mesopotamia, Montville, Orwell, Rome, Hartsgrove, Trumbull and Morgan townships.

“We had about 40 firefighters on the scene, either working the fire or shuttling water,” Turk said.

Turk said the source of the fire appears to have been electrical. Because the house used “balloon construction,” without any stops in the walls, the flames spread quickly from the basement to the attic, gutting the entire structure.

“The walls act like a chimney, and the fire takes over the whole house,” Turk said.

The departments received support from the American Red Cross, which set up a canteen, and Amish neighbors, who brought food and beverage to the scene. Smith says the Amish even provided diapers for her 2-year-old. Smith said she wants to thank every neighbor and firefighter who assisted the family during the ordeal.

The house is owned by Mel and Beckie Miller, who live next door. Miller said he has owned the house for about eight years but never lived in it himself. He said the house is insured; however, there was no insurance on the contents.

Barbara Smith said she lived there for a year.

“We used to live on Hague Road, but we had trouble with our water. My son saw this house with a for-rent sign on it,” Smith said.

“Compared to where they were at before, it was a nice place,” Lesley Vas said. “They finally got something good and established, and this happened.”

Smith said her boyfriend, who was not living with her at the time, also had all his possessions in the house, and her friend Angela had most of her clothing in the house. All of the family’s Christmas presents were consumed by the fire or destroyed by the smoke and water.

“Grand Valley Schools had adopted my children, and they bought presents for them,” she said. “They were all destroyed.”

Wednesday afternoon, Brittany Smith, who was shopping at the mall when the fire was discovered, began picking through the pile of water-soaked, charred personal possessions that firefighters had removed Tuesday night. Brittany said she believed that most of her clothes were still inside the house, inside a box. She wondered whether the smoke and water had reached them, and what became of the video camera she had received as a Christmas present.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s real,” Brittany said. “It’s terrible.”

“You see this on TV, and you can’t imagine it would happen to you,” Barbara Smith said.

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