EAST LIVERPOOL - Three homes, one occupied, were destroyed by a fire Friday that injured two firefighters and also damaged three other structures, forcing at least a dozen residents into the early-morning cold.
A report of the Railroad Street fire came in at 5:42 a.m., with police Capt. Tom Clark and patrolmen Kelsey Hedrick and Chad Tatgenhorst arriving first on the scene.
They found flames shooting from the roof of 944 Railroad St., owned by Betty Cronin and occupied by William and Margaret Cronin and their daughter Katherine.
The officers helped the family escape their burning home, moving them to a house two doors down. Then, according to Hedrick, the fire worsened and the Cronins and occupants of the other homes had to be moved to safety.
One resident was reportedly handicapped.
As the four firefighters on duty at the the time of the call started underneath the Jennings Randolph Bridge toward the fire scene, "Embers were hitting the trucks like snowflakes," according to assistant Chief Jeff Kreefer, who said a stiff wind was carrying the ashes and embers from the burning structures.
"We didn't have any problem figuring out where we were going. All three houses were fully involved by then," Kreefer said.
A third alarm was sounded at 5:46, bringing out seven additional firefighters and the aerial truck to the blazing inferno that was so intense, it damaged the gauges on one of the trucks.
Traffic on the Norfolk-Southern tracks running parallel to the street was stopped, including a train which had just left Wellsville that reportedly was pulling tankers filled with fuel and which would have had to pass right by the burning homes.
Firefighters entered the structure at 944 Railroad St., barely making it out as the fire intensified quickly, forcing them to abandon 200 feet of hose, two nozzles, two lanterns and the helmet of firefighter Jim Allmon.
Allmon suffered flash burns to the ears and forehead but did not seek medical treatment. Firefighter Aaron Jones was injured when an object lodged in his eye, but he also did not seek treatment.
Flames from the burning building quickly spread to vacant homes on either side, one at 950 Railroad owned by Shirley Shaw of Erie Street and the other at 940 Railroad, owned by Margaret Cronin. Both were deemed complete losses.
A fourth house at 938 Railroad Street owned by Georgeiana Emler next door suffered heavy damage to the eastern exterior but only slight water damage to the interior, according to Kreefer, who said the four homes were only feet apart from each other.
"The guys did a good job saving that last house for the amount of manpower they had. They really put out a lot of effort," Kreefer said.
According to Kreefer, the Cronins reported they smelled a burning odor in the upstairs bathroom of their home at 944 Railroad Street during the morning on Thursday and again on Friday, but they couldn't find the source.
Katherine awoke Friday morning to feel heat and saw fire coming from the wall between her bedroom and the bathroom. She told her mother, who called for her husband, who attempted to put out the fire with an extinguisher.
Kreefer said the cause was probably electrical in nature, although the definite cause has not yet been determined.
"There was probably something arcing inside the wall that ignited something," he said. The house was insured, whereas Emler's home was not insured. Kreefer was uncertain whether the others were insured.
A Yamaha motorcycle on the porch of 944 Railroad Street and a fiberglass boat and trailer in the backyard were both destroyed by the fire.
In addition to the four Railroad Street houses, a home at 943 Saint George St. occupied by Ray Barton and another at 951 Saint George St. occupied by Denise Taylor suffered heat damage to their vinyl siding. Both homes are owned by Commonwealth Property Management of Pennsylvania.
The residents displaced by the fire were assisted by the American Red Cross which was on the scene and which initially moved them to the United Brethren Church in Pleasant Heights.
Later, they were transported to the East Liverpool Motor Lodge, where motel staff members were helping process the residents' needs and providing food and temporary lodging.
"Our hearts go out to the families affected by this tragedy. These folks are our friends and neighbors and we are happy to work with an agency like the Red Cross in easing the suffering of these victims," Tom Wycoff, general manager of the motel said.
Liverpool Township Fire Department was placed on standby during the fire. Both Tri-County and Lifeteam ambulance companies were on the scene.