By DAVID GREEN
A house fire in Morenci early Aug. 5 resulted in an act of heroism by a neighbor, but left two people dead.
A blaze shortly before 4 a.m. last Wednesday destroyed the home at 404 Pearl St. owned by Jeremy and Christina Rohr. Jeremy, 36, and son Zachari, 12, died in the fire. Christina and her son, Austin, 9, escaped the blaze, while Ryan, nearly 2, was rescued by a neighbor.
Morenci police officer Frank Cordts was on patrol when he turned off Washington Avenue and headed west on Pearl St. He soon saw flames and when he approached the home, fire was visible in windows throughout the structure.
As he called in the report to the dispatcher in Adrian, Christina and Austin were coming out the front door of the house.
Fire chief Chad Schisler said the report of a house fully engulfed in flames was sent at 3:43 a.m. Seconds later the dispatcher added that people were trapped in the home.
Cordts went to the front door and, amid the smoke and flames, spotted Jeremy lying on the floor. He tried unsuccessfully to pull him out of the house and when neighbor Bobby Black arrived, the two together tried to remove Jeremy from the fire.
That’s when an accident led to a stroke of good luck.
Black slipped and fell, but once he was at floor level, he saw young Ryan on the floor below the smoke. Black crawled across Jeremy to grab the child, throw him over his shoulder and exit.
Black suffered burns on his legs, arms and back as burning debris dropped onto him.
Morenci police chief Larry Weeks said Ryan was reportedly not breathing when he was brought outside. Christina and then another neighbor attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and the youngster eventually began breathing normally again.
Black wanted to go back into the home to look for the others, but there was too much smoke and fire.
“It was a valiant effort by Bobby and Frank to get them out,” Chief Weeks said. “If Bobby hadn’t been there, the baby would be dead.”
When the fire department arrived at 3:50, the fire had grown enough that the department’s interior crew was forced to cool the floor with water before they could crawl across the surface.
“A fire can double in size every minute,” Chief Schisler said about house fires, and flames spread rapidly in the Rohrs’ older wooden home.
Weeks is waiting to hear back from the state fire marshal for a report on the cause of the fire. The marshal visited the scene twice and took photographs to study burn patterns, Schisler said.
Neighbors reported hearing an explosion, but Weeks determined this sound was heard after the fire was well underway.
Schisler said the noise could have been caused by a cooking stove fuel canister exploding on the back porch or maybe when the electrical wiring to the house burned.
“The wires had already burned off the house when we arrived,” he said.
Christina accompanied the youngest child in an ambulance to Fulton County Health Center where he was treated for smoke inhalation.
Morenci was assisted by firefighters from Lyons and Fayette and by Wauseon’s rapid intervention team (RIT). A deputy with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department also responded after hearing the radio traffic while patrolling in the northern portion of the county.
The fire department has been the subject of considerable criticism by Black and by anonymous commenters on the Adrian Daily Telegram website. Some residents are unhappy with the seven-minute response time and with the inability to save the two victims. After interviewing people involved, Chief Weeks says that criticism is completely unwarranted.
“I feel strongly that everyone did everything they could to save the victims,” he said.
Department members were already shaken by the loss of life, Schisler said, but the public criticism has made the situation much more difficult.
“My crew performed to the best of their ability, but we weren’t going to change the outcome,” he said. “It was a bad situation when we got there and we couldn’t make it any better.”
Schisler told city council members Monday that he spoke with Christina Rohr and her in-laws earlier in the day.
“They wanted to extend their appreciation to the fire department for everything they did,” he said.
He added that they were very upset with the rumors being spread about the department.