11 homeless in Locust Gap fire; air conditioner blamed
LOCUST GAP - Eleven people from two families were left homeless Sunday morning when fire caused by a malfunctioning air conditioner destroyed one house and caused extensive damage to an adjacent dwelling.
Firefighters from three counties battled the 9:25 a.m. two-alarm blaze that started in the living room at 296 Main St. and quickly spread next door. It was brought under control in about 45 minutes.
"It was definitely the air conditioner that started the fire," said Jacob Shellhammer, 33. "I was right there and saw it catch fire."
In addition to Shellhammer, left homeless were his girlfriend, Melissa Savidge, 37, and their four children, Mackayla Okronglis, 13; Mya Okronglis, 12; Draco Shellhammer, 8, and Elias Shellhammer, 3, all of 296 Main St.; and John Laughlin, 53; his girlfriend, Sonia Barrera, 53, and her three grown children, Jake Timothy, Angie Timothy and Rebecca Killian, all of 294 Main St.
Both families are uninsured and are staying with relatives or friends.
A six-month-old German Shepherd/collie and a cat belonging to the Shellhammer family perished in the fire. Another dog survived. Three dogs and a cat owned by the Laughlin family also escaped unharmed.
The home at 296 Main St. was gutted, while the residence at 294 Main St. sustained heavy fire, smoke and water damage, but could possibly be renovated.
The fire blew out a transformer attached to a utility pole in front of the homes and PPL employees cut power to the damaged houses. Other properties in the block were temporarily without power.
Firefighters also had to cut holes in the connecting roofs of vacant properties at 292 and 290 Main St. for ventilation.
A large amount of fireworks stored in a neighboring home were removed from the property to prevent a potential bigger disaster. Locust Gap Fire Chief Ed Bordell said the owner of the fireworks has a permit to put on a pyrotechnics display.
Bordell confirmed at the scene that the fire is believed to have started from a malfunctioning air conditioner in the second-story living room at 296 Main St.
Bordell and Mount Carmel Township Fire Marshal and Police Chief Brian Hollenbush are continuing their investigation.
Shellhammer said he was sleeping in the living room with his two sons and oldest daughter when he heard a "pop" from the air conditioner and saw the curtains around the window immediately catch fire.
"My oldest daughter, Mackayla, grabbed the two boys, while my youngest daughter, who was upstairs sleeping, heard the commotion and came downstairs," Shellhammer said. "We all met and got out of the house safely."
Shellhammer said he attempted to douse the fire with a garden hose, but he couldn't get a kink out of it. He said the entire back wall was on fire when he exited the home.
Shellhammer, a former volunteer firefighter, was grateful nobody was killed or injured and thanked the firefighters for preventing a far greater disaster. But he and the rest of his family were very distraught by the loss of their home and pets, which were retrieved from inside the house hours later.
Melissa Shellhammer, a certified nurse assistant, was working at a nursing home in the Bloomsburg area when she was notified about the blaze. "The last thing I expected was to get a call at work about my house being on fire," she said. "Jake did everything he could. I'm still in a state of shock and very traumatized from the fire."
Melissa said her boyfriend has resided in the home since 1983, while she and her family moved there in 2005.
She said the couple were in the process of purchasing the home from Jacob Shellhammer's mother, Mary Shellhammer, of Lavelle.
She said her family plans to stay with a friend from Lavelle.
Laughlin, who has lived in the Main Street property since 2008, said he, Barrera, Angie Timothy and her female friend were sleeping in the home when they heard Jacob Shellhammer yelling about the fire. He said Barrera's two other children were at a friend's home out of town.
"Sonia heard a loud pop while she was upstairs sleeping," Laughlin said. "She got the rest of us awake and we quickly exited the home when we heard Jake yelling outside for all of us to get out."
Laughlin, who wears a metal rod prosthesis on his left leg, called 911 to report the fire.
He said a car owned by Angie Timothy's friend sustained damage in the fire.
Laughlin said the home is owned by his sister, Patricia Laughlin, of Locust Gap.
He said his family will be staying with his mother, Carolann Laughlin, of Locust Gap.
Bordell's daughter, Lisa Bordell, who assisted at the scene, said, "I heard my dad's pager go off and saw a lot of smoke from our house on Oak Street (on the other side of the village)."
She said she knows all the victims.
"I feel very sorry for them," she said. "I'm just glad both families escaped unharmed."
'It went up so quick'
A neighbor, who preferred not be identified, said, "It went up so quick."
Mount Carmel Police Chief Todd Owens, who was among the first fire, police and emergency personnel to arrive, said it was fully involved.
"Flames were shooting out the side of 296 Main St. on the first and second floors," he said.
Ed Bordell thanked the firefighters and other emergency personnel who assisted, including units from Mount Carmel Township, Mount Carmel, Kulpmont, Shamokin, Coal Township, Wilburton No. 1, Lavelle and Sunbury, AREA Services Ambulance, Mount Township Officer Keith Tamborelli, Mount Carmel police and fire police from Kulpmont, Ashland and Shamokin.
He also praised neighbors for providing water and snacks to firefighters working during the warm summer morning.
Bordell said firefighters attacked the blaze from all angles and didn't experience any problems despite the narrow street and layout of houses.
Traffic was detoured from the fire scene in both directions on Route 54/901 until about noon. The last fire unit left the scene at approximately 3:10 p.m.