By Beth Christian Broschart
ELKINS - An outpouring of community support and concern after a fatal fire Monday morning has offered thoughts and prayers not only for the victims and their family, but also for the many dedicated first responders assisting at the blaze.
Five of the seven family members - including all four children and the father - in the Central Street house when the fire erupted have died, and the remaining two adults are being cared for at the West Penn Burn Unit in Pittsburgh.
Children cope with loss of friends
On Wednesday evening, a 4-year old neighbor of the Chamberlain family dealt with grief in her own way. Shilyn Spencer was a good friend of Bella Chamberlain, one of the children who died from injuries at the scene of Monday's fire.
Shilyn's grandmother, Annabelle Spencer, said Shilyn had a plan to honor Bella.
"Shilyn used to meet Bella at the bus stop each morning and they would sit together on the bus ride to Third Ward Elementary," Spencer said. "Shilyn and Bella were such good friends, and they went to the carnival at the Mountain State Forest Festival together. Bella's mom took pictures of the girls at the carnival, but those were lost in the fire. After Bella's mom called the fire in to 911, her phone was destroyed in the fire."
Spencer said her granddaughter had a balloon, and was going to write on it and release it into the sky later Wednesday evening.
"Shilyn said she wanted to send the balloon to Bella so she would have something to play with in heaven," Spencer said.
"This fire is awful for everyone in Elkins, and especially hard for those who knew the family," she said.
Counselors helped students in three Randolph County schools deal with grief Wednesday. Randolph County Superintendent of Schools Terry George said counselors worked at Third Ward Elementary, Elkins Middle School and Elkins High School.
"We wanted to offer assistance to those touched by Monday's fire," George said. "The loss of life of four young children, two who attended Randolph County schools, and the loss of a parent affect many people."
George said after kids see this kind of tragedy, they could be losing sleep and worrying if it could happen to them as well.
"This is a great cause for concern because it can happen to anyone," George said. "It weighs heavily on my own mind, and the whole community has been affected. One of our board members, Harvey Taylor, is helping with a fundraiser. I applaud his dedication."
George said there are two kinds of people - those who run from a burning building and those who run into a burning building to try to save lives.
"This has been very difficult for our first responders as well," George said. "We need to remember to keep the fire fighters, EMS personnel, law enforcement and hospital employees in our prayers as well. I have a great deal of respect for those who do what they do and risk their lives each day to keep us safe."
George said the community is lucky to have such dedicated first responders.
"Emergency personnel did a tremendous job getting the family out of the hospital and to medical treatment," George said. "They need to be kept in our thoughts as well."
At Elkins Middle School, counselor Jill Zurbuch said students were calm and thoughtful Wednesday. Katie Bolgar, 11, who passed away Tuesday from injuries sustained in the fire, attended EMS.
"We offered both classroom and individual counseling for those in need," Zurbuch said. "We had two counselors in the school and three additional counselors to help with the multiple activities.
"Most of the kids came up with ways to remember and help the family. The EMS administration was wonderful, and we were able to do a good job for the kids. They are choosing and brainstorming ways to help."
Zurbuch said activities included expressing feelings of grief and loss, and students wrote positive memories of Katie and created a paper chain to show unity.
"Beginning Thursday, our school website will offer information for parents to help deal with the different stages of grief," Zurbuch said.
To access that site online, go to www.boe.rand.k12.wv.us, click on schools, click on Elkins Middle School and select "parent information on grief."
Funeral arrangements for the five victims of the fire are incomplete and will be under the direction of the Randolph Funeral Home.
First responders dealing with
Elkins Fire Chief Tom Meader said the fatal fire was the worst incident he has seen in his 34 years of fire service.
"We have worked many fatalities, but this was the worst," Meader said Wednesday. "Please keep the victims and their family members in your prayers. And please remember to keep the fire fighters, EMS workers, law enforcement and hospital employees in your prayers as well.
"Even though we deal with situations everyday, it never gets any easier."
Meader said the Elkins Fire Department has an in-house reverend chaplain that helps his fellow fire fighters cope.
"Kevin Starcher sat down with us last night for a two-hour debriefing," Meader said Wednesday. "It was a good session. It really helped me and quite a few of the other guys. We have a lot of healing left to go through."
Meader said the department also has access to a chaplain from the West Virginia State Police if needed.
Starcher, who is the Benfield-Vick Chaplain at Davis & Elkins College, the associate pastor for Family and Community Ministry at Davis Memorial Presbyterian Church and an Elkins volunteer fire fighter, said local schools and congregations are doing a good job offering grief counseling to those affected by the tragic fire.
"It is okay and natural for anyone to feel sad and to grieve about this tragedy," Starcher said. "The best way to get through the grief is to speak about it with a safe person you trust. If you walk into any church in this area for help, you will be welcomed with open arms."
Starcher said one way to deal with grief is through love.
"Love your family, go out and help others or find a way to give to others affected by this," Starcher said. "Give back love - that is grounded in the scriptures."
David Moore, president of the Randolph County Ministerial Association, said he has talked with people struggling after this week's tragedy.
"Anybody seeking support can go to any of our local congregations," Moore said. "We are all available for help. Put everything in God's hands - he is the great comforter."
Moore said he will help with grief counseling for the members of the Elkins City Police.
Tim Tharp, charge nurse of the Davis Memorial Hospital Emergency Department, said his staff also held a debriefing following the fire. Tharp said the systems are in place to help staff members deal with grief.
"No two emergencies are the same, and they do not affect the staff the same," Tharp said. "Individuals also deal with grief differently. We invited those helping to attend a grief counseling session with a licensed psychologist. Everyone was given the opportunity to share their thoughts and speak."
In an effort to avoid future fire tragedies, Meader reminded folks to change the batteries in their smoke detectors, and take other fire precautions.
"This weekend marks Daylight Savings Time, and that is a great time to change the batteries in your smoke detectors," Meader said. "There is a new state code that requires a working smoke detector in every sleeping area."
Meader said to use reliable batteries, and not to remove them for any other use.
"Another imperative fire safety action is to design an escape plan for your home with your family," Meader said. "Make sure everyone knows two ways to exit the home, and have a designated area for everyone to meet. And be sure to practice the escape so it is fresh in everyone's mind."
Meader said to clean chimneys a minimum of twice yearly. He also cautions against hoarding items in the home.
"Hoarding is a disaster," Meader said. "Clutter such as paper or clothing is a fire hazard."
He also said to consider escape ladders for upstairs bedrooms where there is not access to a porch roof.
Meader said the Elkins Fire Department has received many calls this week asking for advice about smoke detectors.
"The community is stepping up," Meader said. "God bless the family."
Elkins Mayor Van Broughton said this has been one of the saddest weeks he can remember.
"I'm just so moved by how our community is coming together to support the victims of this terrible fire," Broughton said. "Neighbors are bringing food and other supplies. There are plans for fundraisers and a candlelight vigil."
Broughton said area congregations are remembering the victims in their prayers.
"I am getting calls from civic organizations and community members asking how else they can help, and there has been a huge outpouring of concern on the city Facebook page," Broughton said. "I hope we can take some comfort from being reminded about what a caring, generous community we live in."
Broughton said he has two points of focus.
"My first priority is to do everything I can to help support the families in their time of grief," he said. "Although people are probably going to get tired of hearing me say this, I want to remind everyone out there to check the batteries in their smoke detectors. This weekend is daylight savings time, when we hear change your clocks and change your batteries. But I really hope everyone will make a special effort to do so this year.
"Please, keep your families safe; keep your kids safe; keep our fire fighters safe; make sure you have working smoke detectors throughout your home; and plan and practice how you would get out of your house during a fire."
Residents express sorrow on social media
Posts on Facebook have offered prayers for the victims of the fire and for everyone dealing with grief.
Doug Hammond posted, "My heart HURTS tonight in the worst of ways. A terrible tragedy occurred two mornings ago in the little mountain town where we used to live. A fire in a home. The parents and four children were trapped. Today the third and fourth children joined their other two tiny siblings in heaven."
Ralphene Maynard posted her thoughts and a challenge on Facebook, writing, "As I'm home with my family tonight, I look at my precious son and cannot imagine my life without him or my husband. This a nightmare. Nothing can make it better. My heart is breaking for her. There are no words. I am challenging my friends and family to help with the fundraiser for this family on the 9th - We need to help each other when times are rough."
The Coalton Volunteer Fire Department Facebook post reads, "MANY prayers are needed at this time for the remaining family members and also for the fire fighters and first responders who hope to never face this type of tragic call. Thanks for all your selfless devotion to serve. Thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends and to our brothers and sisters in the fire service during this terrible time."