Brooke County Deputies Recount Rescue From Wellsburg Building
‘30-60 seconds more, we wouldn’t have made it’
WELLSBURG — Brooke County Sheriff Larry Palmer said it’s very likely the two juveniles found in the burning Genpak building Monday night wouldn’t have survived the fire if not for the efforts of several deputies who entered the building to search for them.
Palmer, a former fire chief, said as the building became filled with smoke and flames, it would have been very easy for the teens to become disoriented and lose their way through the building, which the deputies described as a maze of rooms. He said Deputies Devin Baker, Kristen Richmond and Shane Siranovic remained in the former plastics factory after they discovered it was on fire to ensure the two teens got out.
Palmer confirmed the deputies and Wellsburg police were called to the Charles Street building after a young girl told her parents she had seen someone enter it.
Richmond, one half of the sheriff’s department’s K-9 unit, said she arrived with the police dog to help search for the trespassers. She said when she learned of the fire, she left the dog safely outside.
After Siranovic and Baker forced open a barricaded door to gain entry to the building, she joined them inside, according to reports filed by the three deputies.
Deputy Tim Robertson, who also entered the building, went back outside in search of a bolt cutter to cut chains that barricaded a door inside. He said he hoped one of the arriving fire departments would have the tool.
“Those guys went up as I went out trying to find chain cutters,” Robertson said.
As they entered the second floor, Siranovic, Baker and Richmond found stacks of burning wooden pallets in the building’s northeast corner, according to the deputies’ reports. Siranovic said a volunteer city firefighter and a state trooper also had entered the building and were ascending the stairwell when he thought he heard one of the missing juveniles.
Richmond found the female and as she attempted to apprehend her, tripped and sprained her ankle. Palmer confirmed she is on medical leave while recovering from the injury.
As the girl was escorted from the building by Richmond, she told the deputy of the male still inside and she rejoined the others inside to look for him.
Baker described crawling on his knees with a flashlight while searching the building, and Siranovic related nearly being struck by falling ceiling tiles and cables. Siranovic said after finding the male, they returned to the door through which they entered to find flames about 5 feet from the door and heavy smoke that made it difficult to breathe.
Asked if they feared they might die while in the burning building, Richmond said, “There really wasn’t enough time to think about it.”
Siranovic said he remembers running and screaming as he ran with the others from the building, which became fully engulfed within minutes after they left.
“I remember him screaming the roof was coming down and to get the hell out,” said Richmond. “I’d say if it was 30-60 seconds more, we wouldn’t have made it,” she said.
The suspects, whose names have not been released because they are juveniles, face arson charges filed by Wellsburg police. Investigators believe they used lighter fluid to ignite cardboard boxes inside the former factory.
Meanwhile, Wellsburg City Council expressed concerns this week about the former factory’s burned remains, as well as restoring traffic flow and landline phone service in the area.
Councilman Paul T. Billiard asked how soon the section of Charles Street in front of the building would be opened, noting traffic through that area is busier at this time because of many ball games at the Betty Carr Recreation Site.
Billiard also asked about the stability of the north wall.
He said though it’s leaning inward, he’s concerned about it endangering anyone. He said some people have been passing through the yellow police tape to collect bricks that fell onto the adjacent sidewalk.
City Manager Steve Maguschak said he will consult Thrasher Engineering to determine if the street can be safely reopened. After the meeting, Maguschak urged residents and visitors not to go near the site.
He noted city officials secured grant funds to investigate the presence of hazardous materials at the site and haven’t yet determined whether any exist.
Mayor Sue Simonetti said crews had been set to take core samples of the site this week using funds secured by the Business Development Corp. of the Northern Panhandle.
“It’s not a dead issue as far as how we’re going to get it cleaned up. We’re just going to go about it a different way,” she said.
Councilman Charlie Harris said since a phone line attached to the building fell during the fire, many customers of Frontier Communications at the city’s north end have been without landline phone service. He said he was told the service may not be restored for two weeks, with many crews dispatched to areas affected by the recent hurricanes.
Police Chief Richard Ferguson said there was evidence of someone setting small fires in the building prior to the fire. But he said when suspicious activity at the building was reported, police found people working for the building’s owner there instead.