Chief says teens lucky to be alive as fire destroys home
By Ed Nadolski
Editor in Chief
Four teens narrowly escaped with their lives when a fast-moving fire destroyed the Town of Burlington home they were sleeping in early Sunday morning.
“Honestly, within a minute or two more and we probably would have had four fatalities,” town Fire Chief Ed Umnus said Tuesday. “(The fire) moved so fast. They were definitely on the edge there.”
The teens – the homeowner’s 18-year-old son and three of his 17-year-old friends – were treated at Aurora Memorial Hospital of Burlington for smoke inhalation and minor cuts suffered in their escape and released.
While the exact cause of the fire will likely never be known because it consumed the house, Umnus said, investigators will likely label it accidental because the teens had been cooking pizza. He said it appeared the fire started in the kitchen area.
Umnus said the teens did what fire officials teach: “They got out and they called for help. I don’t think they could have done anything differently.”
However, making it out of the house at 7121 McHenry Street was a harrowing experience, Umnus said.
Christopher Ely, 18, son of homeowner Linda Winkler – who was not home when the fire broke out sometime around 3 a.m. – was sleeping on the first floor of the home and three friends (two boys and a girl) were sleeping upstairs.
“The female woke up coughing and was the first to notice something,” Umnus said.
She roused the two other 17-year-olds, who were also on the second floor, but the trio soon found the stairwell too thick with smoke to use.
Umnus said the three broke windows on the second floor and were able to crawl out and jump to the ground from a first-floor overhang.
“They went around to the back of the house in an attempt to enter and get their friend,” Umnus said, but they found that area of the home already engulfed in flames.
The trio then went to the front of the house and began pounding on the front door and yelling and an attempt to rouse Ely.
They succeeded in waking their friend, but he was initially unable to find the door because of the amount of smoke in the house, Umnus said.
“He listened to their voices to find the door,” the chief added, surmising that Ely had to crawl across the floor to reach the door.
Once out of the house the, the teens ran about a block south to the Bohners Lake Fire Station, hoping to find the firehouse staffed. When they didn’t, they ran to a nearby home and succeed in getting the neighbor to call 911.
The call came into the Racine County Communications Center at 3:30 a.m. By that time the house was fully engulfed and Umnus issued a call for the City of Burlington Fire Department to respond as well.
“When I crested the hill on Highway P (McHenry Street), I could literally see the fire – not the glow from the fire, but the fire – above the tree line,” Umnus said.
At that point he issued an additional alarm through the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System, which summoned fire units from Kansasville, Rochester, Lyons, East Troy, Wheatland and the Racine Fire Belles, a firefighter support unit.
“By that point there was fire coming out of every window and door,” Umnus said, noting firefighters immediately took a defensive stance in fighting the fire.
A third alarm went out through MABAS, bringing units from Randall, Wilmot and Tichigan to assist. In addition, the Burlington Area Rescue Squad and Paratech Ambulance responded.
Tankers brought water to the scene from a city fire hydrant near Lavelle Industries and from nearby Bohners Lake.
“We dumped 23,000 gallons of water on the house,” Umnus said.
Despite those efforts, all that remained after firefighters cleared the scene at 11 a.m. Sunday were charred rubble and a brick chimney that ran through the center of the home.
The home was insured, Umnus said.