Wednesday, November 14, 2012

LAKE CITY — Get my babies out! Get my grand-babies out!

Sandy Barthman shouted for her granddaughter in the house ablaze on an unpaved road on the south side of town.

She heard the middle-of-the-night fire call in her own house a few blocks away, where she sometimes has trouble sleeping and listens to her police radio scanner.

An officer on patrol had smelled smoke and weaved the streets to find the house with leaping flames. Barthman’s radio echoed the address: 703 S. Illinois St.

She knew what lay inside. Three of her grandchildren and her infant great-grandson. She rushed in nightgown and sweats to the house and wailed, “Tyra! Tyra!”

A burning rubber smell choked the air. The officer blocked Barthman, 65, from going inside. There was too much flame, too much smoke.

Fire Chief Mel Alcox thought the same when he arrived.

“I don’t think there was anything to save by the time we got there.”

Pop. Pop. Pop.

Hundreds of rounds of ammunition exploded inside the house as firefighters arrived about 1:50 a.m. on Tuesday. It sounded like a giant popcorn popper.

Barthman’s son, Tony Pierson, who lived in the home with Kim Kraft and their children and a grandchild, owned about three dozen guns and plenty of ammunition.

Firefighters wondered what else might explode inside the house and stayed back.

Pierson, 45, works overnight shifts at Farner-Bocken Company, a national food distributor, in Carroll with Kraft and their daughter Ashley Pierson. Another daughter, Tyra, 22, takes care of the younger kids while the parents are away.

Barthman frantically called different departments at Farner, hoping to reach one of them. None has a direct line. Tony Pierson finally dialed back.

“Get here! Your kids are in a fire,” she recalled saying to him.

“Get them out! Get them out!” he shot back.

“We’re trying.”

An uphill battle

Firefighters hooked their trucks to two neighborhood hydrants and blasted water into second-floor windows.

But there was a major problem. Chief Alcox noticed that the water went in one side of the house and out the other.

The family had been remodeling the house. It had new siding in parts and an aqua-green back. Most important that night, there were ceilings and walls that lacked drywall or plaster and were primed for a fast-moving fire.

“That’s why it got so carried away so quickly,” Alcox explained. It’s unclear what time the fire ignited.

Part of the roof collapsed less than an hour into the fight to extinguish the blaze. It took two hours to knock the fire down and a further four to fully extinguish it.

Pierson and Kraft watched helpless as the 22 firefighters sprayed water. About a dozen relatives gathered near the house. They stayed in vehicles — and later, a nearby county storage building — to keep warm as outside temperatures dipped near freezing.

They cried and hugged and stared. There wasn’t much to say.

Investigators later found that the fire started in the ground-floor living room. It appears that an electrical cord from a hanging ceiling lamp was pinched into the frame of a sleeper sofa, which might have caused the cord to burn or spark, Alcox said.

He said one of the children often awoke in the middle of the night, and that the child might have inadvertently pinched the wire.

Firefighters initially found three bodies inside the house after they extinguished the fire.

Tyra Pierson was in the upstairs bedroom with her 10-month-old son Xavier. They were on the floor, and it looked as if Pierson tried to crawl out of the room with the infant, Alcox said.

Another child, Madison Pierson, 8, was found on her stomach in a downstairs hallway.

The firefighters couldn’t immediately find Wyatt Pierson, 3.

His family waited outside of the house and worried. Was Wyatt still in the house? Did he escape? they wondered.

Tony Pierson looked at the bodies that had been pulled from the house, Barthman recalled. His infant grandson was soaked, which made Pierson uneasy.

It was so cold outside.

The town’s tragedy

Firefighters carried armloads of charred items from the house in search of Wyatt.

Alcox was reluctant to force his guys to go inside. He’s been a firefighter in the town for nearly 35 years, but some scenes are still too grisly to bear.

“We got a lot of guys with young kids,” he said of his firefighters. “I told them they didn’t have to go in.”

They pulled out blackened chairs and tables and tools from the piles of debris inside.

And eventually they pulled out Wyatt. He was in the kitchen, in the back of the home, as far from the fire as he could get.

The outside door to that kitchen was blocked for winter with a plastic cover. There was no way a child could get out the door, Alcox said, though it was unclear if the boy tried to escape there.

Some of the firefighters gathered that night at their station and sat in a circle and talked about what they saw. Even tough guys need an outlet for emotion after they witness a tragedy, Alcox explained.

Police Chief Bobby Rist said his officer, Dana Cook, who first smelled the fire that night and tracked it to the Pierson house, wrestled with the what-ifs afterward. What if he had found the fire 10 minutes earlier?

Cook has four children, and the oldest is 12, Rist said.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years. It never gets easy,” Rist said. “The first thing you do when you go home is hug your kids.”