Small town tragedy offers nationwide lesson

Barre Fire Chief Peter John
Published: .
Updated: .

Bob Segall/13 Investigates

As part of Indiana's statewide Fire Prevention week, WTHR takes you hundreds of miles away to tell a story that hits very close to home. 13 Investigates discovered a small town in Vermont with a powerful message for Indiana. In fact, for you and your family, it's an important lesson that just might save your life.

Barre, Vt. - Tucked into the Green Mountains of Vermont, Barre is a real-life postcard town with picture-perfect images around every corner. But some folks in Barre want you to remember their town for something other than the scenery. What they want you to remember is a day they will never forget.

That day is December 17, 2005.

"There was freakin' fire everywhere," recalls Russ Ashe, a deputy fire chief with the Barre Fire Department.

Ashe and firefighters from other nearby fire departments responded to an early-morning house fire on Eastern Avenue.

David Gladding, a 29-year-veteran of the Barre Fire Department, remembers seeing the glowing flames from blocks away.

"I remember looking up in amazement, looking in the front window to the living room and just seeing everything orange," he said.

As soon as emergency crews got to the house, neighbors told them a family was inside the burning home. Police and firefighters entered through the front door, but flames and intense heat quickly turned them back.

"People were saying you gotta get in there and save them," said Barre police officer Henry DuHaime, who was first to attempt entry. "It was a helpless feeling knowing there were people in there."

The fire was spreading.

Deputy Chief Ashe found a back door and made a risky decision.

"We just went in because, at that point, we knew we had kids in there."

Barre's fire chief was called to the scene and recalls a "sick feeling" as he approached the house.

"I went over to the front of the building and looked and I looked again... I said, 'Oh my god.' I knew it was my nephew's house," said fire chief Peter John.

Inside the blazing home were John's nephew Art Foster, Art's wife Kimberly and their four children -- Tory, Brett, Krista and Mikala.

Firefighters found all of them lying unconscious on the second floor.

"We've got to get them out," is the first thought that went through the mind of Barre Fire Chaplain Larry Brown. "That's what we're trained for... get them out and rescue them," he said.

Art Foster was found first. He was resuscitated and air-lifted to a nearby hospital.

Then came the children.

One by one, their limp bodies were carried down ladders and rescue workers immediately began CPR.

"When I had Krista in my arms and (Mi)kala in my arms, I had every expectation that we were going to bring them out ... that we'd have a happy ending," Ashe said.

The happy ending never came.

Less than an hour later, all four children and their mother were pronounced dead.

"(Doctors) told us they were all gone. They all perished in the fire. It's the worst punch in the stomach you could ever feel," recalls the fire chief.

"There wasn't a dry eye in that hospital after we got done. Firefighters were all just crying and hugging each other and trying to get through it," said Gladding. "I've been to fatal fires before but nothing like this."

Gladding and other firefighters carried unopened presents out of a charred house where the Foster family was supposed to celebrate Christmas just one week later. They couldn't understand what had happened because inside the house, they found at least two smoke detectors that were connected to the home's electricity.

None of the firefighters heard a smoke alarm.

"I kept thinking, 'something is not right,'" John said. "We gotta figure out what happened here. It just didn't make sense."

It didn't make sense until the Barre Fire Department learned what most people do not realize: not all smoke alarms are the same.

After the fire, Jay Fleming, a deputy fire chief with the Boston Fire Department, showed Barre firefighters what he showed 13 Investigates earlier this year -- that the most popular type of smoke alarm does not respond quickly to slow-burning fires. Tests conducted by WTHR, local fire departments, university researchers and government scientists all show that in some slow burning fires, ionization smoke alarms do not sound at all.

Firefighters and investigators say that is exactly what happened in Vermont.

They believe it was cigarette ashes in a second-floor couch that triggered a slow-burning fire that was not recognized quickly by ionization smoke alarms. Ashe says that allowed a slow-burning fire to become a deadly inferno.

"An ionization smoke detector is only going to protect you from some of the kinds of fires you're going to have in your house," he said. "If you have a smoldering fire in your house, it's not going to do anything for you. You can have a room full of smoke where you can't see your hand in front of your face and the things won't make a sound."

Barre's fire chief is now angry, and says smoke alarm manufacturers have not done enough to educate the public.

"We've been snookered," John said. "I feel the public has been snookered not being educated on the different types of smoke detectors that there are."

Barre firefighters are now on a mission to help teach the public about smoke alarms.

Inside an old Barre house, Ashe and firefighter Matt Cetin have conducted the same types of tests and demonstrations conducted by 13 Investigates.

Those tests show -- once again -- photoelectric smoke alarms responded quickly to smoldering fires while ionization smoke alarms did not.

"We did the tests in a real house, this is a real couch, it's a real fire, and real smoke detectors. How can you argue with that," Ashe said.

All the tests have been videotaped and are available on the Barre Fire Department's website. It's helped educate not only the public but also a lot of firefighters.

"I always thought I was protected by an ionization smoke detector and when Matt opened my eyes up, I left here and drove to the hardware store and bought some photoelectric smoke alarms and installed them in my house," said Gladding.

Barre firefighters hope their educational message will help prevent another tragedy.

"The greatest thing that can come from this tragedy, and a legacy to these children to save other children is to get this message across with just the utmost urgency," said Brown.

Cetin agrees.

"You need to have both types of smoke detectors -- photoelectric and ionization," he said. "I personally believe had they had a photoelectric (smoke alarm), those four children and the mother would be alive today."

Note: Indiana state fire marshal says countless Hoosiers have died because here, too, most families do not realize there are different types of smoke alarms. Fire Marshal Roger Johnson recently announced that all Indiana families should have a photoelectric or dual sensor smoke alarm on every level of their homes. WTHR and hhgregg stores are making those smoke alarms available at a discounted price. Find out how to get them.