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Fire displaces 4 Pa. families

July 11, 2007|By JENNIFER FITCH

GREENCASTLE, PA. - In the wake of a fire that destroyed three homes and damaged another, onlookers, rescuers and victims at the scene were giving thanks Tuesday.

Many said they were thankful that no one was hurt.

Four siblings were thankful for the neighbor who rescued their elderly parents.

The state police fire marshal was thankful for firefighters who kept the blaze from spreading beyond where it did.

And Harold Duffey - the man called "a reluctant hero" in the aftermath - teared up when expressing thanks for the food, clothing, housing, thoughts and prayers offered by his beloved Greencastle community.

"It's more the community coming together than the material things," Duffey said. "That's why we live here."

Ceiling plaster falling onto the bed of Harold and Marlene Duffey, of 54 Homestead Drive, woke the couple around midnight Monday.

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Within minutes, several calls had been placed to 911, Harold Duffey had guided at least two neighbors to safety and volunteer firefighters were converging to battle a fire that authorities said likely reached 2,000 degrees. The extreme heat from the Duffeys' retirement home melted siding on a house 20 feet away, and the molten vinyl ignited the wood-frame construction of that home, fire officials said.

When the majority of firefighters left the properties at 5 a.m., three of the four $250,000-plus duplex units were a total loss, Greencastle Rescue Hose Co. Lt. Tim Mowen said.

The fire started in the Duffeys' attic over the kitchen, then spread to 50/52 Homestead Drive, Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Jeffrey Sarver said. It also damaged 56 Homestead Drive, the other half of the single-story duplex built under Duffey's supervision as contractor in 2000.

Sarver was continuing to investigate the cause of the fire, but said his early findings indicate it was accidental. The "heat impingement" from the extreme temperatures could have caused the fire to spread more, he said.

"Easily, it could have taken the whole block," Sarver said.

"Once it gets in the attic, it's hard to get out," said Mowen, who was in charge at the scene. He called for additional manpower halfway through the attack, eventually accumulating up to 100 firefighters from at least nine departments.

Paul Politis, who owns 56 Homestead Drive, had been asleep for about 20 minutes when he heard a 'bang' that reminded him of thunder. When Politis saw the smoke and flames, he yelled to wake his wife, daughter and granddaughter.

"I said, 'Harold's house exploded and is on fire.' I didn't know if my house would explode next," Politis said.

The aftermath

Fourteen hours after the fire broke out, Helen Mullenax sat on a folding chair in her driveway and waited to talk to an insurance adjuster. Behind her, sun shone on most of her charred 50 Homestead Drive home that had only its garage and rear porch roofs intact.

She recalled the fire's first three hours, during which she felt "intense heat" as she watched the house burn and worried about her cat. The feline fared well with the exception of a burned paw.

"Harold Duffey frantically rang my doorbell," Mullenax said. "It was unbelievable. I've never been in anything like that, but other people make it through, and I will, too."

The adult children of Prather Hull Sr. and his wife, Virginia, worked near Mullenax's chair, wiping sweat from their foreheads as they salvaged belongings from 52 Homestead Drive. The remains of photographs were crumpled in a pile by the garage door.

"Mr. Duffey came in and got Mom on the porch. He went in and got Dad dressed and brought him out," daughter Kay Shank said.

"If it hadn't been for Mr. Duffey, we might not have two parents," she said.

The couple, both in their 80s, had adopted Greencastle as their home when their farming days were over, Shank said. Carl's Drug Store, a community fixture for 182 years, was providing the Hulls with free medications and Virginia's portable dialysis needs, following a stressful and confusing night, she said.

"This gentleman here," Sarver said, pointing to Harold Duffey, "he's a reluctant hero. They're out safely because of him."

Duffey is a member of the Greencastle Borough Council, lifetime member of the Rescue Hose Co. and past deputy fire chief, although he hasn't regularly fought fires in 15 years.

"I've helped a lot of people with catastrophes like this when I was active with the fire department, but it's different when it's you," Duffey said.

He left the house without shoes and saw his frequently polished Corvette melt. On his mind in the afternoon were the personal identification cards and pictures, and his wife's treasured Christmas ornaments.

"I can't say enough about the Greencastle fire department. It's actually my first love, the fire department. It's a real strong brotherhood because they're all volunteers," Duffey said.

The American Red Cross visited the homes.

All residents, who had smoke alarms but don't remember hearing them, said their current needs have been met.

"All in all, I feel thankful," Politis said.

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