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Dispatcher calms woman trapped in fire

January 13, 1999

911 dispatcherBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




WAYNESBORO, Pa. - An 88-year-old Waynesboro woman on Tuesday praised the 911 dispatcher who kept her from panicking during the awful minutes it took firefighters to reach her in her burning home Sunday night.

Estella Thompson, of 253 Clyde St., was taken to Waynesboro Hospital but had no injuries, Waynesboro Fire Chief Dale Fishack said.

Dennis Clopper, a 10-year dispatcher with the Franklin County Department of Emergency Services, said Thompson called 911 at 8:13 p.m., saying her house was on fire and the room she was in was filling up with smoke.

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She also said she was disabled and couldn't walk or get up from her sofa.

Thompson, who has walked with the aid of a walker after having a stroke seven years ago, said the fire started in an electric heater in the room.

"I was asleep. I woke up when I heard a wire crackling. I tried to pull the wire from the wall, but I couldn't get it," she said Tuesday.

Other dispatchers directed firefighters while Clopper stayed on the phone with Thompson and tried to keep her calm.

"She was panicky. I kept telling her over and over to stay calm, that she would be all right, that help was coming, but she was getting frantic," Clopper said. "I could hear her smoke detector going off in the background."

At one point, Thompson hung up. Clopper called her back and continued talking to her.

Capt. Brian Starliper and Deputy Chief Trayer Stoops of the Waynesboro Fire Department were the first to enter the house about a half-mile from the fire station on South Potomac Street. They arrived within seven minutes of the 911 call.

Starliper said the fire was within two feet of the sofa when they entered the smoke-filled room.

"It could very well have been a fatality," Fishack said.

Clopper said he heard Starliper and Stoops through the phone when they arrived. He hung up and went back to his normal duties.

Clopper said at one point he began to feel agitated, but knew he had to remain steady if he were to help the woman.

"I never once thought I would lose her. We don't ever think like that," he said. "I think she did a fine job for a lady her age."

Thompson has lived in the frame two-story house since 1952. She was alone and on the first floor when the fire broke out.

At first Thompson was confused and didn't want to leave her house, Starliper said. They carried her out.

Clopper said that while on duty he has been on the phone with women who were potential victims of domestic abuse, and there were times when an ex-spouse or boyfriend tried to get into or actually broke into their homes.

"We tell them to get someplace safe, either a closet, or if they can to get out of the house," he said.

It's not rare for dispatchers to talk people through the CPR process over the phone, but he said he doesn't remember any incidents like the one involving Thompson.

Thompson's house sustained about $30,000 worth of damage. She is staying with the family of Philip and Elease Snively at 1012 W. King St.

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