Early signs are that flames from a “burn barrel” started the house fire where a firefighter was killed and five more were injured Wednesday evening.
Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said Friday that investigators believe the fire started outside, where the homeowner had a controlled burn going.
“This is a high probability as to where it could have started,” he said. “(Investigators) feel it could have easily started in the carport area. There was a burn barrel there. There had been burning in that barrel very close timewise to the fire, so that’s probably going to play heavily and play true to the overall cause and origin to the fire itself.”
Brisk winds probably caused some of the burning debris to catch the house on fire, Riggins said.
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During a Friday afternoon news conference, Riggins delivered some good news in the wake of Wednesday’s tragedy.
Two of the three firefighters who were sent to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center -- Adam Michie, 34, and Ferrell Cromer, 46 -- have been discharged from the hospital. Mitchie is still recovering from some of his injuries and will be on limited duty for a while.
In addition, Battalion Chief Stephen Stafford, 59, who sustained injuries related to smoke inhalation, had his condition upgraded, Riggins said, and was awake and alert Friday afternoon.
The news is the first positive report since the fire at 2320 Fairview Drive on Wednesday evening, in which Lt. Randy Parker was killed and the others were injured. Besides the firefighters who were sent to the Augusta burn center, firefighters Matt Couey, 27, and Ben Bollinger, 28, were treated and later released from the Medical Center, Navicent Health.
Riggins said the department is grateful for the outpouring of support from the community.
“Let me say thank you to our community at large,” he said. “Our community today has tremendously showed us gratitude and so much love and concern for us, for our department, for our firefighters. It’s been really a beautiful sight to see. Unfortunately, the circumstances are very grim, but the support from Macon and Bibb County and from surrounding areas has been just absolutely outstanding.”
As of late Friday afternoon, Macon-Bibb fire investigators were still working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the state Fire Marshal’s Office to investigate the fire. The two agencies were called in because a firefighter was killed in the line of duty. Riggins said investigators are waiting for the ATF to conclude its report on certain evidence from the fire.
The autopsy for Parker has been completed, but officials are waiting on a toxicology report.
Riggins said the house was fully aflame when units arrived at the scene. Firefighters battled the blaze for more than an hour before getting it under control.
During an initial inspection, though, firefighters detected an intense amount of heat in the basement area. That’s when Parker and some of the other firefighters ran back into the house. As they went in, the floor collapsed and they fell through to the basement. While four of the firefighters were able to be evacuated relatively quickly, Parker was pinned under debris and it took rescuers more than 30 minutes to free him. The breathing tanks used by firefighters typically last up to 30 minutes. Riggins said at a Thursday news conference that Parker’s equipment didn’t appear to be damaged.
The owners of the house, Don and Kathy Coffey, were inside the house when the fire started and managed to escape without injury.
Riggins said the family has had a tremendous amount of grief over the fire and contacted the department several times.
“They were there and did not want to leave us the night of the fire,” Riggins said. “They were grieving directly to me. If (Don Coffey) did it once, he did it 10 times that night of the fire itself. They had been grieving and even called in people that night (from their church) to engage in prayers and vigils for us that night.”
Riggins said strong community support is helping the fire department get through the tragedy. He said some firefighters from stations 7 and 12 -- the units involved in the fire -- had to take sick days because they were too traumatized to go to work. Riggins said other firefighters were called in to staff those stations. In addition, the fire department’s clergy and grief counselors were made available to anyone who needed them.
“Time is helping,” he said. “This is certainly not an easy thing we are having to endure. (With) the firefighters themselves, it’s being played over and over and over in their minds that fire itself and the end results of it.
“I’m very grateful to the (grief counselors) to sit and listen to them and allow them to communicate and dialogue with one another. ... We are grateful for the many prayers and many calls.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.