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Heater might have caused inn fire

January 27, 2009|By DON AINES

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FORT LOUDON, Pa. -- A propane heater is being eyed as the possible cause of a Tuesday morning fire that destroyed the Fort Loudon Inn, leaving a child dead, four people injured and a dozen others homeless, according to Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal Jeffrey Sarver.

Franklin County Coroner Jeffrey R. Conner identified the child as 19-month-old Kayla Jo Myers of Greencastle, Pa. Conner said an autopsy will be performed today at Lehigh Valley Medical Center in Allentown, Pa.

Sarver said the child and two other people were visiting a tenant at the inn, which contained a number of apartments. The body was found in the second-floor apartment on the northeast corner of the building where the fire started.

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The tenant, who had lived at the inn for about two months, did not recall hearing any smoke detectors, although other residents did, Sarver said. The body was removed at about 11:15 a.m. by Sarver and another trooper, but Sarver said the walls of the building were too unstable to go in and make a detailed examination of the scene.

"While we were in there, we had fire all around us," Sarver said. "One external wall was leaning in on us."

A propane heater attached to a wall is being considered as a possible cause of the fire, Sarver said.

A woman and a child were taken to Chambersburg (Pa.) Hospital Tuesday morning, but their injuries were not serious, according to Acting Franklin County Director of Emergency Services Susan Dutko. Two firefighters who were hit by falling debris were also taken to the hospital but were later released, she said.

Firefighter 'Mayday'

"The second floor caved in on me," said Donald Saum, 23, of the Maugansville Goodwill Fire Co. "I was stuck for about 10 or 15 seconds" before being pulled free by other firefighters, Saum said.

"They actually called a 'Mayday'" for a firefighter down, Saum said. The collapse happened at about 11:30 a.m., he said.

"I was heading up the basement stairs when I heard the Mayday," said fellow Maugansville firefighter Brandon Hull, 21. As he tried to respond in the dark conditions, a hose line was moved, pulling his feet out from under him, he said.

Hull struck his knee on the steps, possibly sustaining a hairline fracture, he said.

"I thought it was my alarm clock and I kept hitting it," Janet Keefer said of the sound of smoke detectors, which woke her up.

She and her two sons were able to get out of their first-floor efficiency apartment, she said.

"Just what we've got on," husband Steve Keefer said when asked what remained of their belongings. He said he had left for work just 10 minutes before the fire was reported.

Steve Keefer said his family was scheduled to move out of their efficiency apartment Friday and hoped that the mobile home they were renting would be available before then.

"My daughter and two grandsons just moved out of there," said Dawn Gogin, who owns the 260-year-old inn with her husband, Richard. Of the 11 apartments in the building, she said five were occupied.

Gogin was on her way to Martinsburg, W.Va., when she received a call that the building was on fire.

Gogin said the building had undergone extensive renovations since the couple purchased the building.

"It was a real nice place," Steve Keefer said.

Firefighters from 18 companies and the Air 10 unit were called in to fight the fire, Dutko and state police said. Tankers pulled water from a stream and lined up to keep filling two collapsible tanks to feed the fire hoses.

Flames were through the roof and thick smoke billowed through falling snow as firefighters tried to bring the fire under control while also battling temperatures in the teens. By the time crews were getting ready to leave, much of the roof on the front of the inn had caved in.

Douglas Sheppard lives in a mobile home just yards away from the inn and was awakened by his son. He saw a firefighter on a ladder banging on a window and indicating that someone was inside.

The fire spread from one window to another, and then came through the roof, Sheppard said.

"It was horrible. After almost seeing a co-worker die, you get flashbacks," he said of a fire he witnessed a few years ago in Mercersburg, Pa.

"Devastating. It's unreal," said Ron Cuff, who lives near the inn.

Inn history

The inn was built between 1748 and 1751, according to Rose Group, a former owner, although the inn's Web site said it was constructed in the 1790s. James Buchanan, the 15th president who was born near Mercersburg, once lived at the inn for a year in 1840, Group said.

Those who lived in the building were taken to the Fort Loudon Community Center, Dutko said. Most of them would be staying with relatives, but at least five were being assisted by the Franklin County Chapter of the American Red Cross in finding shelter.

The Red Cross was also extending services to others in the neighborhood who lost electricity when it was cut off by Allegheny Power to help firefighters, Dutko said.

"We're still assessing the situation," Red Cross Emergency Services Director Allen White Jr. said Tuesday afternoon. Volunteers served coffee, hot cocoa and lunches to the displaced and to first responders.

Staff writer Jennifer Fitch contributed to this story.


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