COAL TOWNSHIP - What exactly caused the fire that destroyed a family's home Thursday on West Independence Street hasn't been determined.

What is known to Jim Hoffman is that were it not for his dogs, the losses caused by the blaze may have been much worse.

Hoffman was asleep on a couch inside 1308 W. Independence St. when fire ignited in the southeast corner of the basement and spread to the first floor. His Jack Russell terriers were asleep with him. Something roused Ziggy and Princess. The dogs began to bark and Hoffman woke to a living room filling with smoke.

He went to the kitchen at the rear of the house to see where the smoke was coming from and turned and left with one of the dogs. He went back inside for the second and left again.

"They're the ones who woke me up. If it wasn't for them, it'd be totally different," Hoffman said at the scene Friday morning.

Craig Bowers, of 1311 W. Independence St., said he was inside his own kitchen with the front door open when he heard noises coming from out front.

"When I went out, I saw the black smoke rising," he said.

Bowers and Hoffman met each other outside when Hoffman asked Bowers to call 911.

Hoffman, a longtime Coal Township firefighter, soon after radioed 911 from his truck to make the call for a "second alarm," he said.

Hoffman's wife, Cheryl, and their daughter, Kayla Jilinski, were together at Tiger Stadium at Southern Columbia Area for a junior high football game when the fire occurred. Cheryl had her emergency pager with her. When the emergency call was broadcast, it first put the location of the fire in the 1200 block. That left Kayla and Cheryl to wonder.

"We were actually trying to figure out what house it was," Cheryl said.

"My friend had called. ... 'It's your (parents') house. Get home now,'" Kayla said.

Total loss

Trooper Kirk Renn, state police fire marshal, investigated the scene Friday. He said the home was a "complete loss."

A generator was operating in the area where the fire originated. It was being used to power a refrigerator and a television. There was no electric service to the house, he said.

"I can't say with absolute definitiveness that it is what caused it," Renn said of the generator, saying the cause has officially been ruled "undetermined."

Renn doesn't believe the cause to be suspicious but noted that Coal Township Police will continue investigating.

The rear of the home - studs, plywood, the deck - is charred black from top to bottom; vinyl siding totally melted away. Damage isn't much less severe out front, with windows busted out and debris laying about.

Between the destruction of the home and damages to contents inside, Renn estimated the Hoffmans' losses at a minimum of $120,000.

Still shaken

Jim and Kayla and her husband, Rich Jilinski II, were all dressed in turnout trousers as they worked inside 1308 W. Independence St. Friday to salvage belongings. Cheryl helped, too. So did others.

They had lined up photos on the front porch that had been brought from inside - class photos, wedding photos and the like. Some were charred on the edges or discolored. Rich used his hand and then his boot to gently break glass that melted to a wedding photo.

The Hoffmans were still very shaken by Thursday's events. As the couple spoke to a television reporter about what they lost and what they saved, they both choked up, turned and embraced.

Cheryl and Jim had themselves responded to dozens of fires over the years to assist. They had also been victims of fire twice before, Kayla Jilinski said, including an arson that caused some damage to the rear of the home in 2001. This time around, the fire rendered the property a total loss.

They're staying with Kayla and Rich for now. Cheryl said when they find a place of their own, it'll have to accept their Jack Russells.

No one was injured in the blaze. While the dogs were rescued, they were unable to save an estimated 12 cats from inside the home.

The local chapter of the American Red Cross is assisting the family.

Coal Township Rescue Squad, of which Jim is a member and Cheryl a membership secretary, will accept donations from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. today for the family at its station at 1130 W. Pine St.

A fire relief fund has been set up for the family at the Susquehanna Bank branch on Independence Street in Shamokin, Kayla said.

Cheryl said she's been touched by the outpouring of support from family and friends and strangers.

"It's amazing. I can't say enough," she said.