Pratt firefighters, EMS and law enforcement went above and beyond duty during a tragic house fire in Pratt that claimed the lives of four children and injured their mother.
The investigation continues into the cause of a January 26 house fire at 211 Austin in Pratt that claimed the lives of four children and injured their mother, Charee Wheatly. Wheatley was first taken to Pratt Regional Medical Center, then an EagleMed helicopter life-watched her to St. Francis Hospital where 24-hours later she remained in critical condition.
On Thursday, members of an investigation team from the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s office spent time on site at 211 Austin trying to determine the cause of the fire, said Pratt Fire Chief David Kramer.
Jill Bronaugh, Kansas State Fire Marshall public information manager, said the investigation into the cause of the fire is on-going and information will be released when it is available.
The Pratt Fire Department continues with a presence on-site at the burned home with a several trucks and a couple of firefighters to assist the investigation with any equipment they need and to be available if anything flares up. There have been no rekindled embers so far. The main level floor of the home was weakened to a point that the joists were sagging and it had to be braced up for safety during the investigation.
Firefighters were called to multi-family home at 9 a.m. on Thursday. Fire and heavy smoke were coming from the front of the house.
“The whole front of the house was involved in the fire,” Kramer said.
Family members from the main floor who had gotten out informed firefighters that people were in the basement of the house. Firefighters immediately put water on the basement area to knock down the fire so firefighters could enter and search for victims.
With a charged line (fire-hose with water), a team of four firefighters entered the basement through a back door of the house. The basement was full of smoke and firefighters had to crawl on their hands and knees and use their hands to search. One victim was found rather quickly and taken out side where firefighters began CPR. A couple of other victims, including Wheatly, were found relatively quickly and brought out. CPR was applied until EMS took over.
“Thankfully EMS got there quickly and took over,“ said Kramer. “It was definitely a godsend to see them there that quickly.”
The firefighters had to back out, get fresh oxygen bottles and go back in a couple of times during the search. They thought they had everyone out and Kramer let the firefighters hold off. But they then learned that there was one more victim in the basement. Firefighters hit the fire again with several lines to knock it down, then went in and located the last victim.
“Conditions in the basement were very bad,” Kramer said. “The smoke was so thick, firefighters couldn’t see anything right in front of them.”
Meanwhile, other firefighters continued to fight the fire outside the house. The fire had done substantial damage to the main level floor and fire- fighters had to continuously monitor the floor even as they searched the basement.
“It was probably, in my 42 years, the most selfless, courageous act of heroism I have ever been involved with,” Kramer said. “Their main concern was finding sustainable life. I feel very proud of our guys.”
There is a saying among firefighters: “We will risk a lot to save a lot.” Pratt firefighters risked a lot yesterday (Jan. 25) even though the outcome was not what they wanted, Kramer said.
Pratt firefighters had to immediately contend with another fire. The house next door to the south, 215 Austin, was close enough to the fire that heat caught the eves on fired. Because of the construction of the house, the fire moved quickly up though the attic and it was difficult to put out. Firefighters had to cut a hole in the roof to access the second fire. The fire was contained to the roof area and the resident, who was watching from outside, was not injured.
A rehabilitation station was set up to give fire- fighters a breather because they were exhausted. Because of their training and getting water, rest and reinforcements as needed, no firefighter was injured in the fire despite very difficult conditions.
“They did an outstanding job. They did everything they could possibly do and no one (firefighters) were injured,” Kramer said.
About two-thirds of the way into the incident, Kramer requested assistance from Township 12 for their ladder truck and for additional manpower. An additional water hydrant was not close enough to the staging area and difficulties mounted as firefighters and emergency personnel tried to lay down hose from two blocks away. Vehicles in the area tried to cross the hose lines until additional blockades were established.
The ladder truck allowed firefighters to attack the fire from above and put water directly on the fire on the roof. This measure quickly aided the effort and put out smoke and fire. From eight to 10 Township 12 firefighters assisted at the fire.
Because all Pratt units were at the fire, a unit was called from Iuka for backup the Pratt department, if needed, and one from Preston was called in to back- up Township 12 in case of another fire.
Firefighters were finally released from the scene about 8 p.m. and they then headed back to the firehouse to clean equipment and review the event.
Kramer said the outpouring of support with thoughts and prayers for the firefighters has been overwhelming.
A Critical Incident Stress team out of Harvey County will be in Pratt this weekend to work with the firefighters. Kramer said they have had offers of stress teams from all over the state, including from Wichita, Ford County and the Kansas State Fire- fighters Association.
“The outpouring of support, thoughts and prayers has been overwhelming,” Kramer said.
Casey’s of Pratt donated pizzas and water for firefighters at the scene on Friday morning.
Larrison Mortuary is in charge of the funeral arrangements for the Wheatly children.