• Last modified 990 days ago (Oct. 7, 2021)


Passerby's warning saves family in back-to-back fires

Staff writer

A knock on the door by an unidentified passerby helped a Hillsboro mother and her two kids reach safety in the first of two house fires that kept firefighters busy from 11:42 p.m. Sept. 28 until 7 a.m. Sept. 29.

The stranger tried to kick in her front door to warn her about the fire. She was alerted in time to get herself, her children, and three dogs out of the house. Three cats remained.

“He pretty much saved our whole family,” Sabrina Hessel said. “He looked like he was a Tabor College student.”

Hillsboro fire chief Ben Steketee said the fire started in a detached garage and spread to the house. Flames started on the east side of the house and crept inward.

Firefighters who entered the burning house said the fire breached a couple of interior walls and spread upward.

Cause of the fire is unknown.

“I have no idea,” Steketee said. “The state fire marshal’s investigator is going to have to figure it out. We were able to get it slowed down pretty quick.”

Hessel, who lived in the Hillsboro house with her 4-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter, said Friday she had been having a rough time in the aftermath of the fire.

“I’m not doing so good,” she said. “I spent my day out house hunting. I went to my parents’ house and am about to go back over to the house and see if I can save anything.”

Although she hopes to find a few sentimental items, firefighters already warned her that might be unsuccessful.

“They said everything’s pretty much destroyed from the fire and the smoke,” Hessel said.

Hessel is between jobs. Her new job was supposed to begin Monday, but paperwork postponed her start date.

Seeing the fire’s effects on her son has been difficult, she said.

“You would be surprised how much little kids understand,” she said. “My boy, he’s been awfully sad because he knows we lost our home.”

Hillsboro, Marion, and Durham fire departments battled the fire.

Hillsboro firefighters cleared the scene at 3:30 a.m., refueled their trucks, returned to their station, and got ready for the next call. It came at 4 a.m.

Firefighters were just saying goodbye after the Hillsboro fire when they were called to a Lehigh fire. Firefighters from Lehigh, Hillsboro, Goessel, and Durham responded.

“It was a busy night,” he said.

Cameron Gottwald, Lehigh fire chief, said a home occupied by Eric Pettit was reported burning at 4 a.m. Sept. 29. Pettit was not home at the time of the fire, he said.

“The house is a total loss,” Gottwald said. “The fire marshal seems to think it was possibly an electrical short or possibly negligent smoking.”

The fire started in a bedroom, he said.

“What I saw when I got there is the top floor was completely on fire,” Steketee said. “It started in the bottom floor but had broken through the top floor and the roof.”

Steketee said it appeared work was being done on the house because many extension cords were on the lawn.

“The problem with structure fires in Lehigh is, they don’t have many hydrants,” Steketee said.

Goessel and Durham fire departments brought tanker and pumper trucks to provide water to fight the fire.

Steketee said most of the firefighters were able to leave the scene at 7 a.m. Gottwald remained in case of rekindling and got home at 1 p.m.

Pettit could not be reached for comment.

Fire marshal Chris Mercer said the cause of both fires were undetermined and further investigation would be needed.

He could not rule out electrical issues, careless smoking, arson, or any other cause.

“I don’t have anything that leads me to believe it’s suspicious, but on the other hand, I can’t prove that,” Mercer said. “At this point there’s no reason to believe they are connected.”

Last modified Oct. 7, 2021