Neighbors gawk at housefire, as blaze fatally injures resident

Although other houses are close by, neighbors chose simply to gawk at the blaze, instead of calling 9-1-1. Their neglect, it appears, cost a human life. Read why you can’t blame the fire department for being late to this fire …

When the firefighters finally located it, far from where first reported, this house was blazing. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Story and some photos by David F. Ashton
The early Sunday morning house fire – officials guess it started about 7:30 a.m. – was burning furiously. It was “fully involved”, as firefighters say, by the time they pulled up at 7:45 a.m.

Huge flames were belching out of the house at 4429 SE 65th Avenue, on the north side of SE Holgate Boulevard, two blocks from SE Foster Road, as crews quickly pulled hoses, set up ladders, and sprinted into action.

Two residents of the house escaped the inferno, but Portland Fire & Rescue (PF&R) firefighters located an unconscious occupant in a second floor bedroom next to the room engulfed with flames. The fire fighters rushed the victim to safety, for treatment by the ambulance crew on-scene – and after CPR, he was rushed to the Burn Center at Emanuel Hospital.

What the official PF&R photos don’t show are the neighbors standing around watching the fire – and no one calling 911 for help. Dick Harris, PF&R photo

Hidden spaces hinder quenching
“The attack on the fire was a challenge for crews,” reported PF&R spokesperson Kim Kosmas, “because the home had many hidden spaces in the walls and attic in which the fire spread. The fire burned most of the second floor, the attic, and later the kitchen, which was located on the first floor.”

The crews of seven fire engines and two trucks battled the blaze until past 9 a.m., Kosmas said, and kept on working, putting out hot spots, until early afternoon.

Wrong address delays response
Typically, fire crews arrive within minutes. Their timely response saves lives and reduces property damage.

In this case, Kosmos reported, a call to 9-1-1 said that the house was located at SE 61st Street at SE Holgate Boulevard. When crews arrived in the area, they found no fire; but after hunting around the neighborhood, they noticed smoke coming from SE 65th & SE Holgate.

We later checked in with PF&R Public Information Officer, Lt. Allen Oswalt, to find out what went wrong.

“The woman who called in the fire to the 9-1-1 Center was driving through the neighborhood,” said Oswalt. “She was unfamiliar with the area, and wasn’t sure of her location. Even though firefighters were directed to the wrong address, she did the right thing, and called.”

This fire left the house a total loss, injured two residents, and killed another.

Many cell phones to take photos, not call 9-1-1
When we visited the scene of the fire later in the week, the devastation was apparent. The entire back half of the residence gaped open, and burned timbers, walls, and furnishings were exposed to the elements.

We spoke with a neighbor who was also looking at the damage. He didn’t want to identify himself, but said, “It seems like the whole neighborhood was out watching the fire. One guy was videoing it; lots of cell phones were out – taking pictures.”

“Did you call 9-1-1?” we ask.

“No,” was the response. “I thought someone else did. It was a huge fire.”

Back at the office, we learned the man whom firefighters rescued, Bradley Holsclaw, age 28, died the following morning, according to the Multnomah County Medical Examiner.

We asked Lt. Oswalt if the preoccupation with photographing the fire – instead of calling it in – could have cost Holsclaw his life.

This rain-soaked makeshift lawn shrine is in memory of Bradley Holsclaw, the man who died in the fire.

“We’ll never know,” replied Oswalt, and he made this appeal: “Please, if you see a fire, don’t assume someone else is calling 9-1-1 for help. We don’t mind getting a dozen calls reporting a fire. We use information gathered from each call to help our crews prepare, en route, for what to expect – and to verify the exact location.”

While not an official finding, Oswalt said he understands there wasn’t a working smoke and fire detector in the house. “It’s a good idea to have two or more. They’re inexpensive, and they save lives.”

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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