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Fire claims lives of couple, grandson

December 12, 2005|by DON AINES

GREENCASTLE, PA.

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

A Greencastle couple known for their work in the community and their 6-year-old grandson were killed Saturday morning when a fire swept through their home, according to police and fire officials.

Joe P. Bowser, 58, of 39 E. Franklin St., his wife, Joan M. Bowser, 57, and grandson Elijah J. Virago of Catonsville, Md., were pronounced dead at the scene at 8:45 a.m. by Franklin County Coroner Jeffrey R. Conner. All three were found in an upstairs bedroom and had died of carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of smoke inhalation, Conner said Sunday.

"The most frequent comment you'd hear about Joe is he's so dependable," said Charles Try of Kauffman Station, Pa., a member of the Greencastle Lions Club, of which Bowser was president. "Joe had just celebrated his birthday Thursday evening."

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"There's a lot of kids in the community come Monday will wonder where Joan is," Try said of Joan Bowser, whom he said was a school crossing guard at the intersection of Washington and Franklin streets for many years.

On Sunday afternoon, a steady stream of vehicles rolled slowly past the gutted remains of the home, which had garland and bows adorning the front porch; a toy soldier stood beside the house.

Conner said the 911 call was dispatched at 4:34 a.m. A Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal from York County called in to investigate the fire listed the cause as an electrical malfunction.

Joel Leckron of 42 E. Franklin St. lives across the street from the gutted two-story house and said he awoke at about 4:30 a.m. and saw flames through a first-floor window of the Bowsers' home.

"I thought Christmas decorations were burning up," Leckron said. He said he called 911 to report the fire and tried to call the Bowsers, but their phone line was busy.

Leckron said he quickly dressed after reporting the fire and went across the street. By that time, a Greencastle police officer was on the scene and they tried to enter the house through a back door, but there was too much smoke coming from the house.

"You want to go in and help them out, but you know you can't go in," Leckron said. "You feel pretty darn helpless."

"There was so much smoke and heat, you couldn't even begin to make entry," Greencastle Rescue Hose Co. Fire Chief Robert Ebersole said. The house was "well-involved when we arrived at the scene," he said.

Ebersole said he did not know the cause of the electrical malfunction, but the fire apparently originated in the first floor. As to whether holiday decorations might have been a factor, he said the degree of destruction left nothing but "charred debris ... There was nothing much in there to see."

The bodies were found in a room to the back of the second floor and Ebersole said the couple and the boy might have been attempting to escape from the rear of house. It had not been determined Sunday whether the house had working smoke detectors, he said.

As firefighters poured water onto the blaze, it created a large volume of steam, and heat from the fire melted some of the siding on a house about 30 feet to the west, Ebersole said.

Greencastle firefighters were assisted by units from Waynesboro, Marion, New Franklin and Mercersburg in Pennsylvania, and the Maugansville and Longmeadow fire companies in Washington County, Ebersole said.

Ambulances from Greencastle, Waynesboro and Mercersburg were at the scene, along with two medic units, the chief said. The nearby Brethren Church on South Carlisle Street opened its community room to allow rescue personnel to get out of the cold, and Greencastle businesses donated refreshments for them, Ebersole said.

Joe Bowser was a technology education teaching assistant at Greencastle-Antrim Middle School and head security guard for the district. His wife of 34 years was employed as a crossing guard by the borough.

Joe and Joan Bowser were members of Waynesboro (Pa.) Bible Church, where he had been Sunday school superintendent and she had taught Sunday school and helped with the summer Bible school program.

A relative of Joan Bowser declined to be interviewed Sunday evening.

Elijah Virago was a first-grade student at Warren Elementary School in Cockeysville, Md., and played football and baseball, and took karate lessons.

Joe Bowser sang in the triennial Old Home Week pageant and had been a performer in past Rescue Hose Co. minstrel shows, Try said. He had at one time also been a fire policeman, he said.

Try said Joe Bowser was Santa Claus during Greencastle's annual Christmas parade Nov. 19, as he had been for several years. Bowser was also Santa during Greencastle's Heritage Christmas, setting up shop in Santa's House near Center Square.

Leckron said that, before the fire, there had been a sign outside the house reading "Santa Stops Here."

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