Fire victim recalls harrowing escape

The flaming blast that burned Sharon Gillespie and destroyed her home in the High Knob subdivision last week is now etched into her memory, something inhabiting her thoughts as she tries to fashion a normal existence out of temporary quarters in a hotel room.

Gillespie and Warren County fire officials have no doubt that a smoke alarm saved her from more serious injuries or death.

Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie called the blaze at 187 Chestnut Trail “one of the worst case scenarios we can face as firefighters.”

Wind gusts of up to 31 mph, snow, ice and the rugged mountaintop landscape of the High Knob subdivision added to the drama as firefighters struggled to keep the fire from spreading to other homes.

The fire left Gillespie’s home, estimated at $500,000, in ruins. Gillespie was hospitalized with burns on her face, the top of the head, the nape of the neck, shoulders and hands.

“It looks like somebody took a cigarette and just started torturing me,” Gillespie said of the burns on her hands.

It could have been worse. Doctors at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville told Gillespie that her lungs were undamaged and the burns will heal without a skin graft. She was released the day after the fire. The rest of the healing requires her to wash her burned skin constantly and apply ointment four times a day.

“It’s much, much better,” Gillespie said.

The fire did more than injure Gillespie and force her and her husband to relocate. Gillespie’s two cats, Gracie and Keezee, have been missing since the fire. Gillespie believes they didn’t make it out of the house.

Gillespie was burned while trying to save them. She initially escaped from the house unharmed thanks to a smoke detector that alerted her to a kitchen fire. Gillespie, 62, was home alone in an upstairs bathroom when the alarm went off in the middle of the afternoon.

She ran downstairs and found a flame coming from the hood over the kitchen range. She said she tried to put out the fire with a small extinguisher but the spray “didn’t mean anything.” She picked up the phone and called 911.

“It didn’t look like the fire was going to calm down, and I opened the kitchen door and ran outside and started yelling ‘fire’ and ‘help,'” Gillespie said.

Gillespie then tried to get back into the house to rescue Gracie and Keezee, but the fire was too much for her.

“While I was standing out there, the door slammed shut, and that’s when I opened it, and it hit me,” Gillespie said. “The blast of hot air pushed me back and the door slammed shut.

All the things they tell you not to do, and I just kept thinking of the cats. By that time, people were coming. I was running away from the house. I didn’t realize how badly burned I was. My hair was on fire, and they were putting up handfuls of snow and putting it on my head.”

Fire Marshal Gerry Maiatico said firefighters have a simple piece of advice to anyone who has escaped a burning structure: Once you’re out, stay out.

Many who open the door on a fire don’t realize the risk they are taking, Maiatico said.

“What you’re doing is providing another opening for oxygen to get to the fire,” Maiatico said. “You’re not only giving the fire the oxygen it needs, you give it a large volume when you open the door to the house.”

Maiatico said he sympathizes with the natural urge of someone to run inside a burning house to save a family member or beloved pet.

“While there’s many incidents where lives are saved when somebody re-entered the house, there are more documented incidents when somebody lost their life because they re-entered the home,” Maiatico said.

Maiatico added that the smoke detector’s warning gave Gillespie the time she needed to escape the house before it was too late.

“A properly installed and maintained smoke alarm is the only thing in your home that can alert you and your family to a fire 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Maiatico said.

Gillespie’s husband, Wes, downplayed the loss of the house and the disruption of their everyday lives. He is grateful she is out of the hospital and recovering from her burns.

“My sweetheart is all that matters,” he said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com