Two die in fire that destroys student house
Four survive; tragedy rocks college, town
Originally published 2010-02-04
Two Western State College students were killed, while four people escaped thanks to the quick actions of a passerby, in a fire that ravaged a historic Gunnison home at 121 N. Colorado St. in the early morning hours last Saturday.
It’s believed the fire started on or near an old couch located inside an unenclosed porch off the home’s front door, explained Gunnison Fire Marshal Dennis Spritzer. It is known that the occupants of the home and their frequent guests would go outside to smoke on the couch. However, the exact cause of the fire was undetermined as of press time and remains under investigation.
Spritzer said that although nothing had been ruled out yet, there were no signs that foul play was involved in the incident. Colorado Bureau of Investigations is assisting with the effort.
“I am confident we’ll be able to rule out any foul play,” Spritzer said. “I’m not as confident we’ll get to a source of ignition.”
Killed in the blaze were Adam Lockard, a 21-year-old WSC senior from Bethesda, Md., and Lucille “Lucy” Causley, an 18-year-old WSC freshman from Harbor Springs, Mich.
Three of the six people who were in the home at the time of the blaze, including Lockard, were tenants there. The other three were guests. Two other tenants were not home at the time of the incident, a college official reported. All but one were current WSC students.
Joaquin Vaughan, 22, who is also a WSC student, was on his way home after spending the evening riding along with the Gunnison Police Department as part of his field of study — sociology and criminal justice — when he noticed flames. He called 911 at 5:19 a.m.
But he didn’t stop there. With the fire rapidly accelerating from the couch up the house’s exterior wall and into the ceiling rafters, he burst inside to alert whomever might be in there.
“The porch was starting to catch ... that’s when I went inside,” Vaughan explained. “I started running around the house, yelling, ‘Fire, fire. Get out. Fire. I was just screaming my head off.”
Four were able to heed his warnings.
“He saved their lives,” Spritzer said.
Spritzer said that the Gunnison Volunteer Fire Department’s command vehicle was on the scene within three minutes of the page. Within five more minutes, a full arsenal of fire apparatus was there, he said.
“When we got there we saw a fully involved porch and a fully involved living room area,” Spritzer said. “The fire had vented through a couple of windows already. We saw smoke coming out the eves around the front of the house.”
Spritzer said firefighters knew that four people had made it out of the house, but were unaware if more remained inside.
“We didn’t know, so we treat it like, yes, there was someone in there,” he said.
Two Gunnison Police officers were also on scene, assisting in the attempt to locate occupants of the house.
Spritzer recounted that a fire fighting entry team began dousing the porch first. They also hit one of the windows that was venting. They went inside, and then backed out.
A second team entered the inferno. Spritzer explained that they made it upstairs and had successfully searched one of the four bedrooms there when what he calls a “smoke explosion” occurred.
“You’ve got a lot of particulate in the smoke that is unburned combustibles,” he explained. “That all ignites at once ... it just takes off in the room. I haven’t seen one for a long time.”
“When that event occurred, we pulled everyone out, for safety’s sake,” Spritzer said. “And then we fought the rest of the fire from exterior.”
According to Gunnison County Coroner Frank Vader, Lockard and Causley were found in an upstairs bedroom. Autopsies revealed that they each died of acute carbon monoxide poisoning from inhaling smoke, causing asphyxia.
One Gunnison Police officer was injured from broken glass. One firefighter experienced smoke inhalation. Both were treated and released from Gunnison Valley Hospital, according to a press release issued by Gunnison Police Chief Keith Robinson.
Barry and Linda Mandelkorn of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the parents of a former WSC student, are the owners of the property.
The house dates back to 1903.
Spritzer said the home did have two smoke detectors, but the one upstairs did not have a battery.
The tragedy marked the first fire-related fatality in Gunnison since 1999, when Craig Carpenter died at 606 N. Wisconsin. Prior to that, three people died in a house fire just north of town in 1986, according to Spritzer.
(Chris Dickey can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org)