Monday, September 22, 2014

Fatal off-campus fire, Reading, PA

Front, or West side of the duplex. The fire was in the right occupancy.

Last week, there was a fire in Reading, Pennsylvania, that claimed the life of Matt Rein, an Albright College sophomore.  I went to Reading and met with Reading Fire Marshal Larry Moyer, who was able to arrange for me to talk with the landlord and one of the students that was in the house at the time of the fire.

Matt was in the basement of the building, where the fire broke out, and was not able to escape the flames.  There were six other students in the 2-1/2 story building, four on the top floor, one on the second floor and one sleeping on the couch in the living room on the first floor.  

Side C, or the east side of the house, where four students climbed down from the porch to escape the smoke.
The students on the top floor were awakened by the sound of someone banging and glass breaking, and one of the students thought someone was breaking into the house.  Very shortly, however, the smoke alarms started to activate. When they tried to get down the stairs (there was only one stairway in the house) they were not able to make it past the second floor.  They went into one of the back bedrooms on the east side and tried going out the door onto the porch.  However, the doorknob came off in their hands, so they had to go out a window onto the porch, where all four climbed down to the ground. During this, one of the students was on the phone, calling 911, reporting the fire and giving an amazingly calm account of the fire, what they were doing, and as he started climbing down, he threw the phone down to one of the other students on the ground who continued talking with the 911 operator.

While they were doing this, one of the occupants in a bedroom on the second floor on the front of the building, the West or A side, was trying to get out by pushing out the air conditioner in his window (the student from the third floor thinks this might have been what woke him up). 

The four students went around to the front of the building and one of them tried going in through the front door, however the smoke was too intense for him to make it inside. Another student was sleeping on the couch right inside the front door, but he was unable to reach him because of the smoke.

Reading Fire Department has five engines and three ladder trucks, each staffed by a fire fighter and a driver. When the call came in, the closest engine and ladder were just backing into the station from a call so they were able to respond immediately. When they arrived on the scene, the students who had escaped reported where there were occupants inside and the fire fighters entered the building. They quickly located the occupant on the couch and removed him and were also able to rescue the victim on the second floor. Both were transported to an area hospital and then flown to Lehigh Valley Hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation.  Matt Rein was located by fire fighters but, due to his severe injuries, he was declared deceased on the scene.

A water pipe burst in the basement during the fire and knocked down much of the fire, so when fire fighters arrived, they didn't have to flow much water to extinguish it.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but it is not believed to be criminal in nature.

This fire is an incredible tragedy where a gifted athlete, a swimmer, lost his life. However, the dramatic lesson that does emerge is the importance of a second exit. The four students from the top floor are alive because they were able to escape through a window onto a porch and then down to the ground floor.  They probably hadn't thought this through, planning on this being a second exit, and the fact that the doorknob came off in their hand could have been a real problem if there had not been a window right next to the door that they could use.

It also looks like smoke alarms played a role in helping alert the occupants. Fire fighters reported hearing smoke alarms on the second and third floor, but it is not clear if the smoke alarm on the first floor was activated at the time or not (there is one there).  This may be a case of in the rush of the moment, trying to locate the victims, they may not have noticed whether it was sounding or not.

In addition to meeting with the landlord and student, Marshal Moyer also arranged a meeting with Albright CollegeAlvernia University and representatives from the city, including Mayor Spencer, where we talked about possible educational strategies for moving forward. I showed them the tools available, including The Alarming Truth9 Fires, the posters we had developed and much more. In addition, I covered the Campus Fire Safety Community Service Projects that we had developed under the Minger Foundation, and there was a lot of interest in getting the students involved in home fire safety visits.
This tragedy is also going to be a good example of what can go wrong, but also what can go right, in a fire.  There are more details to come, once the investigations is complete, that we'll share with everyone.