UTICA — “This could have been horrible,” said Utica Mayor Larry Friesel, standing in front of the Utica Care Center at 233 N. Main St. early Sunday morning as firefighters ventilated the building after a fire in the attic was extinguished and the building evacuated. “But the fire departments did a wonderful job.”
Almost 40 firefighters and 12 firetrucks from four departments filled Main Street as the 23 residents, most of whom are bedridden or in wheelchairs, were evacuated after smoke from a burning HVAC system fan motor in the attic triggered the fire alarm.
The three staff members on duty when the fire started around 11:30 Saturday night smelled smoke and took action as the fire alarm sounded.
Nurse Elizabeth Ashbrook was the staff member in charge at the time.
“I smelled an odor that was like a firecracker in that resident’s room,” she said, pointing from the hallway where firefighters were rolling hose after extinguishing the fire.
“I called the [Director of Nursing], I called the administrator, I called the fire department, and we started getting blankets and moving people,” Ashbrook said.
Friesel, who lives a short distance from the nursing home, came out of his house to wake neighbors to assist the staff and firefighters with the evacuation, according to Utica firefighter Curt Gannon.
Mutual aid from neighboring departments for equipment and manpower was dispatched, and engines, tankers, medics and personnel were on scene in minutes.
“The firefighters knew what they were doing,” Friesel said of the evacuation, which involved placing some of the residents into squads. Others were wheeled on their beds and in their wheelchairs down the street to the Utica Church of Christ.
“There were trucks everywhere,” he said. “They did just a wonderful job, very organized.”
Friesel said Church of Christ keyholder Joellen Black unlocked the church to provide a safe place for the residents to wait while firefighters handled the situation.
Neighbors, on and off-duty staff from the nursing home, and firefighters reassured the center’s residents during the two hours it remained closed. The evacuation was completed in about 15 to 20 minutes, according to Utica Fire Captain Brooks Schmidlin.
Schmidlin said firefighters needed only two hand-held hoselines to put out the fire. After waiting a few minutes, firefighters restarted the HVAC system, but it began smoking again so it was removed.
Firefighters used large fans to ventilate the smoke and electrical smell, and waited on scene in case the system should have more problems.
The owner of the nursing home, Tom Rosser, said he felt a power surge earlier in the day caused by a tree limb falling on a power line may have played a part in starting the fire.
“It’s circumstantial, but it makes sense,” Rosser said as he walked through the building with firefighters before the residents were returned to their rooms.
Fire officials did not speculate on any connection between the earlier power surge and the fire. The official cause remains under investigation. The nursing home was last inspected by an inspector from the State Fire Marshal’s office on Feb. 20. Rosser said the center passed inspection.
Utica Assistant Fire Chief Rob Pierpont stressed the importance training and preplanning played in the smooth evacuation and fire operations
“That’s why we train for these with mutual aid departments,” he said as the fire crews began to be released from the scene around 2 a.m. “The preplanning for this went very well for this particular situation. It took all the companies working together to make this go smoothly.”