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Smoke alarms save Hagerstown family

December 18, 2007|By ERIN CUNNINGHAM

HAGERSTOWN ? It took only a few minutes.

Aaron and Melissa Gettel were sleeping, and minutes later they were watching smoke fill their home and evacuating with three young children.

"As soon as he said there was smoke in the basement, I got the kids out ... barefoot," Melissa, 41, said.

The home they rented on Guilford Avenue in Hagerstown was all but destroyed by a fire that spread through the interior walls early Sunday. Hagerstown firefighters say that working smoke alarms and quick thinking saved their lives.

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"We were told that without smoke alarms we would have died," Melissa said.

The couple and their two children had lived there for only one month.

Five working smoke alarms installed in house

Steve Powell, who owns the home and more than 50 other area buildings, said he installed electric smoke alarms with a backup battery after he'd had some trouble with tenants removing smoke alarms. There were at least five working smoke alarms in the home.

One of them could still be heard beeping Tuesday afternoon underneath the wood and charred insulation that littered the floor.

"In every property I rent out, I want to keep the same standards I would want for my own home," Powell said.

Parts of the home were still intact. The decorated Christmas tree was still standing, untouched by the flames. The wrapped gifts had been salvaged by firefighters from South Hagerstown Fire Co., which is just across the street from the home at 855 Guilford Ave.

Fire started in fireplace area

Mike Weller, public fire educator for the Hagerstown Fire Department, said that the fire started late Saturday night in the fireplace area.

Melissa says she wanted to have a fire in the fireplace, especially over the holidays. The couple called their landlord, Powell, who gave them permission to use it.

Aaron Gettel, who works at Bragunier Masonry in Clear Spring, completed masonry work and extended the height of the chimney Saturday morning. Melissa said she wanted to use the fireplace that night, and they had a small fire between 7 and 10 p.m., before going to bed about an hour later.

Weller says the fire likely was smoldering in the walls behind and beside the fireplace when the family went to bed. The Gettel's 9-year-old niece and their two children, ages 7 and 11, also were home.

'Everything looked fine'

At about 1:30 a.m., the smoke alarms began to sound.

Unable to see the flames, the Gettels said "everything looked fine." They turned one of the smoke alarms off, but soon another one in a bedroom began to go off.

When Aaron went into the basement, he saw it begin to fill with smoke. By the time he went back upstairs to his bedroom, it also was filling with smoke.

The family evacuated, and said they are grateful to be alive.

They are staying with family nearby, but because of available space they cannot stay together ? even during the holiday.

"It's tough," Melissa said. "But we get together for dinner, or to watch movies."

Powell said he should be able to have them move into another one of his properties that will be ready after Christmas.

Hagerstown firefighters offer free installation of a 10-year smoke alarm to city residents. Those who are interested may call 301-791-2205. Since May, firefighters have installed 1,100 alarms in 550 homes.

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