New Castle News

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February 13, 2014

Family loses everything in early morning fire

NEW CASTLE — A Neshannock Township family lost everything in a fire that gutted their home Wednesday morning.

In addition, James Cross, 16, was taken by helicopter to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh where he is listed in critical condition in the intensive care unit.

His mother, Jennifer Bees, 40, was treated at Jameson Hospital for cuts to her feet then released.

Neshannock Township police said she had sustained the cuts after she broke the window to her autistic son’s bedroom, crawled in and attempted to drag him to safety.

Neshannock Township firefighters were called about 4:30 a.m. when a neighbor saw smoke and flames coming from the house at 1245 Kings Chapel Road. The three-bedroom building was constructed as a school house in 1920.

Lt. John Rand of the Neshannock police department, said two officers who arrived first at the scene, heard Bees’ screams from the house and entered the burning building to help her drag the boy to safety.

“She and her 6-year-old daughter, Jolene Bees, got out,” Rand said. “But flames were coming through the door and she couldn’t get back in to check on her son. She ran around the house, broke the window of her son’s bedroom and climbed inside. But he was too heavy for her to drag out.”

Rand said officer Shawn Hill and a passing motorist helped her drag the boy through the window to safety and assist Bees to climb out the same window.

Police said James was covered with blankets and first responders performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to revive him. He was taken by ambulance to Jameson Hospital then flown to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh.

Once outside, Rand said, Bees told officers her 11-year-old daughter, Jessica McAllister, was still inside. Unable to enter the building because of the heat and smoke, Neshannock and state police ran around the building, smashing windows to see if they could see the child, without success.

“Later, she called from the hospital to say she remembered Jessica was not there. She’d been staying at her father’s house,” Rand said. “She said she was mistaken about the girl’s whereabouts due to the panicked state she was in.”

He said he does not know where the girl’s father lives.

The neighbor who called in the fire to 911, rushed to Bees’ aid and took her 6-year-old daughter into her home, Rand said.

Other neighbors arrived with blankets to cover family members before they were taken by ambulance to Jameson, he said.

Brian Melcer, Neshannock Township deputy fire chief, said the house “was fully engulfed” in flames when crews arrived. Told a child was still inside, he said, firefighters tried to enter the burning structure to search for the child before her mother recalled Jessica had spent the night at her father’s home.

“The building is a total loss,” Melcer said. “The family lost everything.”

Firefighters from five other volunteer departments joined Neshannock — Mahoning and Pulaski townships, New Wilmington, South New Castle and Volant.

Because the area is not served by hydrants, tankers and reservoirs were needed to provide water.

Sub-zero temperatures also created challenges for the crews as water, equipment and all surfaces froze.

“It was a miserable night for a fire,” Melcer said. He was told temperatures had dipped to minus-8 degrees. “The extreme cold weather was a big factor.”

 Between 30 and 40 firefighters responded and no injuries were reported from them.

Wednesday morning, Pennsylvania state police fire marshal Luke Nelson said what remains of the structure “is one big block of ice.” He noted the roof had caved in.

Nelson said the fire “is not suspicious. It appears to have been accidental.”

Unable to get into the building because of the ice that is covering everything, Nelson said he believes the fire originated “in the extreme right corner of the living room.”

He said Bees told him an electric space heater had been plugged into a power strip there.

“It is still under investigation, but I have seen power strip/surge protector failures that have been responsible for similar fires.”

He added he will have to wait until surroundings thaw out a little before he can complete his investigation.

Nelson said the structure is a total loss but could not estimate the financial loss to the family or community.

“I was told this was an historic building, a former school house.”

Firefighters were summoned back to the scene shortly after 4:30 p.m. when the blaze rekindled.

The American Red Cross has been contacted and is working with others in the community to provide assistance to the family.

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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