Answers sought in tragic Schenectady fire
Despite rescue efforts, blaze claims 2-year-old girl
Updated 2:10 p.m.
SCHENECTADY A Wednesday morning fire at 235-237 McClellan St. killed a 2-year-old girl and critically injured her 4-year-old sister and 65-year-old grandmother, city officials said.
Sylvia Noxon died at Ellis Hospital following the 7:55 a.m. fire, said Public Safety Commissioner Wayne Bennett during a news conference Wednesday afternoon.
Noxon’s sister, Julie Sharkey, is at the Trauma & Burn Center at Westchester Medical Center in critical condition while her grandmother, Charlene Parker, is in critical condition in the Ellis Hospital ICU, Bennett said.
Two firefighters sustained minor injuries during the fire, said Assistant Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco. One suffered a back strain and the other minor burns, according to fire officials.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, Bennett said. “We have a lot of unanswered questions and a lot of interviews to complete,” he said.
The children’s mother, Nicole Noxon, was not at home when the fire was reported, having gone out to the store, Bennett said. Her boyfriend, Raymond Batease, was in the house when the fire started and escaped the burning building unharmed. Noxon has three other children. They were not in the house at the time of the fire.
Della Rocco said Parker was in cardiac arrest when removed from the house by firefighters but was revived at the scene. The 2-year-old and 4-year-old were unconscious when rescued, Bennett said.
Mayor Brian U. Stratton called the fire “an absolute tragedy” and offered condolences to the children’s mother. “We are heartsick over the loss of this child,” he said.
Bennett praised the heroic efforts of firefighters, who arrived on McClellan Street within three minutes of receiving the 911 call from a neighbor. He said firefighters entered a burning house filled with impenetrable smoke and crawled on their hands and knees looking for the occupants. “It fills me with pride knowing there are these people out there,” he said.
Before firefighters arrived, several neighbors and a city police officer, Brian Whipple, tried to enter the house to rescue the upstairs residents. Whipple was one of the first officers on the scene. He tried to go in, but was turned back by smoke, said Assistant Police Chief Brian Kilcullen. Kilcullen was unsure how far Whipple got before turning back.
One neighbor, Gary Williams, was standing outside his place of business, Daly Funeral Home, when he saw smoke pouring from the two-story, wood-frame house.
“Me and this guy next-door ran across the street and saw the boyfriend come running out,” Williams said. “I could hear the kids screaming.”
Without a second thought, he ran into the house and up the stairs to the second floor, where the children and their grandmother were trapped.
Thick smoke and intense heat forced him out. He tried a second time, then a third. “It was as black in there as that tire,” Williams said, pointing to a car tire. “It was tremendously hot.”
He was covered in soot by his third attempt, he said.
Schenectady County Fire Coordinator John Nuzback said he spoke with Williams at the scene but could not confirm whether he made one or more attempts to enter the house. Nuzback said Williams showed signs of smoke inhalation.
Williams said when he found he couldn’t get inside, he grabbed a 32-foot ladder and set it against the house, seeking to rescue the children, who continued to scream in terror. He used the ladder to reach the second floor landing in front of the house and smashed a window. “I was trying to get the kids to come to the window,” he said.
As soon as he broke the window, firefighters arrived, and “I stepped back to let them do their job,” Williams said. Nuzback said he saw a 32-foot ladder in front of the house.
Patrick Weekes, who lives in the downstairs apartment at 235 McClellan, said he tried to help the second-floor occupants, but there was too much smoke.
“I hear screaming and yelling and saw a lot of smoke,” Weekes said. “I tried to help but it was too hot and the smoke was too thick.”
Williams, meanwhile, said it wasn’t the first time he has run into a burning building. Fifteen years ago, he entered a flaming structure thinking people were inside. There weren’t any.
“I’d do it again,” Williams said. “I have children. I was not worried about the fire when I heard those children screaming,” he said.
Two adults and two children in the downstairs’ apartment escaped unharmed.
One of those children, 12-year-old Jacqueline LeFevre, said she woke up to the sound of banging on her bedroom door and yelling about the fire upstairs.
“I grabbed my dog. I grabbed my sister and got her out as fast I can,” she said.
Jacqueline feared that their various other pets including a snake and hamster did not survive. She was staying with her grandmother while the American Red Cross was assisting the rest of the family with accommodates at a hotel.
Officials said they were treating the fire as a crime scene. Investigating it were the state Office of Fire Control and Prevention, the federal bureau of Alcohol, Fire, Tobacco and Explosives, the Schenectady County Fire Coordinator and others.
Deputy Fire Chief Mark Fragomeni said the house is uninhabitable with extensive fire, smoke and water damage to the second floor and water damage to the first floor.
“We are in the early stages of the investigation. We are going through it with a fine-tooth comb,” Fragomeni said.
Officials still did not have a cause as of Wednesday night but were still at the scene looking for clues.