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Chaos and recovery: West Chester nursing-home families a week later

"It was chaos," recalled one resident's daughter, "literal chaos."

A five-alarm fire at the Barclay Friends Senior Living Community in West Chester left 137 residents and 15 staff scrambling to safety on Nov. 16, a week before Thanksgiving.
A five-alarm fire at the Barclay Friends Senior Living Community in West Chester left 137 residents and 15 staff scrambling to safety on Nov. 16, a week before Thanksgiving.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Most Barclay Friends residents were in bed. On TV, the Pittsburgh Steelers were beating the Tennessee Titans in the third quarter of Thursday Night Football. Outside, wind whistled in a 40-degree night, one week before Thanksgiving.

At 10:46 p.m., in the south wing of the West Chester senior living facility, a fire broke out, the origin of which remains unknown. Across Goshen Road, neighbor Ed Costa, 31, heard a boom and saw billowing flames out his window. He bolted into the cold wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

The West Chester Fire Department quickly pulled up. The fire engine driver wasn't even in uniform, but video from outside the facility showed him running toward a resident and picking her up. A firefighter pushed someone out in a wheelchair; another ran a hose into the building.

For nearly three hours, crews would work frantically to extinguish the blaze, running in hoses and dousing the inferno from ladders. The fire ripped through the complex, quickly raging to five alarms and bringing 400 emergency responders, many of whom ran into the complex as far as they could, pulling residents to safety until they felt their helmets melting. Firefighters' families watched on TV and prayed.

Outside, dozens of neighbors joined Costa's efforts to help. Sandy DePhillips, 56, saw the blaze out her window around 11 p.m. "This is terrible! This is terrible!" she recalled yelling as she threw on clothes and rushed outside.

In all, 133 elderly residents and 15 employees would be saved from the facility on North Franklin Street. Four residents were not saved — an 85-year-old woman; a 93-year-old woman; and a married couple, the wife, 89, and the husband, 92. Their remains were recovered last week but had yet to be identified by Friday.

As the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives works at the charred scene, first responders and Barclay Friends employees are barred from speaking to reporters until the investigation is complete.

But others were able to recall the horror. For residents' families, and those who helped, it was a night they won't soon forget.

Peggy Conaway, 68, was sound asleep in her West Chester home. Downstairs, her husband decided to stay up for the 11 p.m. news. Upon seeing the top story — about the blaze — he ran upstairs and into the bedroom. Conaway awoke to him yelling: "Barclay's on fire!"

From her home six miles away, it would usually take Conaway close to 20 minutes to get to Barclay Friends, where her 100-year-old mother, Beatrice "Bee" Stephenson, lived in a skilled-nursing unit. That night, Conaway said, it took 10.

She parked a few blocks away, as close as she could, then took off running.

By the time she made it up a hill, through smoke, and to the facility, she was out of breath. So many residents were bundled against the cold, only their eyes visible. For what felt like forever, she couldn't find her mother.

"It was chaos," Conaway said, "literal chaos."

Finally, Conaway located Stephenson, who has dementia and for months has been on hospice care.

In recent weeks, Stephenson had stopped communicating, keeping her eyes closed, Conaway said.

But as the fire burned, those eyes were wide open.

Conaway next went to check in on a friend's mother, Nancy Fetters, 76, who lived on the first floor of the assisted-living building, which was rapidly burning. Conaway found Fetters outside in a chair, wearing a hat and a coat.

Are you OK? Conaway recalled asking Fetters, who also has dementia.

I'm fine, Fetters replied, as flames shot up from her building. Why?

As night turned to morning, firefighters from near and far continued to battle the blaze.

When the fifth alarm was sounded, firefighter Mark Pretz, 26, of Media's Rocky Run Fire Company, responded with his crew. He said they first pushed patients to a staging area, where they would be then be transported to shelters.

Hours after the fire had begun, his crew went inside, looking for residents and embers. Surrounded at times by ceilings and insulation that had already fallen or collapsed, they looked under beds and in closets, searching for life.

"Anytime we go into a building, regardless what stage of the incident, we are always searching for life," Pretz said. "What one person misses another might see."

Meanwhile, Barclay Friends employees and neighbors relocated residents; 27 were treated at local hospitals for minor injuries. Others went to triage and then to temporary shelters at Good Fellowship Ambulance Company or a West Chester University gym.

Around 1 a.m., Joshua Dandridge, 22, a student at West Chester University, was at Wawa with his girlfriend when his phone lit up. It was a message in the GroupMe for his campus service organization, the Friar's Society.

"All manpower to the fieldhouse," it read. "Church Street entrance."

Dandridge drove to the Ehinger Gym, where the Red Cross opened a temporary shelter for displaced residents. He joined about 40 West Chester students who set up cots and wheelchairs, and assisted residents getting off buses.

As residents began to arrive, many looked dazed, Dandridge said.

"Just looking around the room," Dandridge said, "it was very heavy to be there."

Quickly, families showed up, too, searching for loved ones. Dandridge noticed some sitting next to cots and wheelchairs, laughing and joking, trying to bring some levity to the situation.

Back at Barclay Friends, Bob Lindner, 31, rushed to the scene as firefighters were still dousing the building. He was looking for his grandfather, 89-year-old John Lindner, known to his grandchildren as "Pop-Pop Jack."

A police officer told the younger Lindner to try Good Fellowship Ambulance Company a mile away. He sped there, where he found his grandfather, confused but OK.

"It was a relief," Bob Lindner said. He took his grandfather back to the West Chester home where he and his father live.

He gave his grandfather his first-floor bedroom and slept on a nearby couch, the proximity crucial since only Bob Lindner and his father can lift the elder Lindner and get him to the bathroom. By Sunday, John Lindner was placed at Brandywine Hall in West Chester.

Lindner, who has dementia, had gotten acclimated to life at Barclay Friends over the last three years, said his daughter Dana Phillips. The transition to Brandywine Hall is like starting over.

"It is a very difficult time for him," Phillips said. "He's not having good days."

Lindner has repeatedly asked to leave. And during his first days, he attempted to wander out a fire escape, setting off an alarm, Phillips said.

Thankfully, he left Barclay Friends with his dentures, she said, but he left his glasses, as well as personal items, clothes, and family photographs.

"His whole world that he had left," Phillips said, "was in that room."

Also adjusting to a new facility was Nancy Fetters, the 76-year-old whom Conaway located during the initial chaos. Fetters' daughter, Meredith Fetters, said her mother has been placed at Kendal Crosslands in Kennett Square, a community owned by the same company as Barclay Friends. But it does not have a memory unit.

Ideally, Fetters said, she would like to see her mother return to Barclay Friends. There, she enjoyed daily activities — such as crafts and bus trips — with a hands-on program for the memory-impaired.

"My hope is that they'll rebuild," Fetters said. "We all want to know what the long-term plan is."

For now, Fetters said, she is thankful for those who helped get her mother to safety and have continued to provide support since.

A donation drive last weekend overwhelmed West Chester's Good Will Fire Company No. 2 with more clothes, canes, wheelchairs, and adult diapers than they anticipated. Traffic police had to be called in to handle the flood of cars.

Patricia Davis, 65, of West Chester, helped sort the donations on Sunday and Monday alongside Barclay Friends workers.

Davis said she was blown away by how well the nurses and aides knew their residents. Family members would approach and employees would know right away exactly the type of clothing their relative preferred, Davis said.

"It was beautiful," Davis said. "Every one of them had the same rapport with the families."

Conaway was also touched by the selflessness of many, from strangers to first responders. On Wednesday, she said, she dropped off Thanksgiving pies at Good Fellowship Ambulance Company — a small token of her appreciation.

Then Conaway went home, to prepare not only for Thanksgiving but also for a special birthday. Her mother turned 101 on Friday. Conaway had hoped her mom, now at Neighborhood Hospice near Chester County Hospital, would be well enough for her family to visit for cake over the weekend.

The fire, Conaway said, hasn't seemed to faze her mother. For that, too, Conaway is appreciative.

"I think she is so far gone that it is sort of a blessing," Conaway said. "She doesn't know she is in a different place."

Staff writers Mari A. Schaefer and Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.