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Four nursing-home residents missing, presumed dead in West Chester fire

"We are not expecting good news," said Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan. He announced that four Barclay Friends residents were missing and presumed dead but he and other officials would not answer any questions about the huge blaze.

A five-alarm fire ravaged a large nursing home complex, Barclay Friends Senior Living, in West Chester late Thursday night into Friday morning.
A five-alarm fire ravaged a large nursing home complex, Barclay Friends Senior Living, in West Chester late Thursday night into Friday morning.Read moreDavid Swanson

An 85-year-old woman. A 93-year-old woman. A married couple, the wife, 89; the husband, 92.

This was all that was revealed Monday about the four people who were missing and presumed dead after a five-alarm fire ripped through West Chester's Barclay Friends nursing home Thursday night into Friday morning, according to the Chester County District Attorney's Office.

Officials "are sifting through the wreckage and the rubble of that building, looking for those people," District Attorney Tom Hogan said. "We are not expecting good news."

The grim announcement came nearly four days after the blaze of unknown origin erupted, burning rapidly through the two-story building and sending 137 residents and 15 staff members scrambling for safety and into 40-degree temperatures. Aside from the four people unaccounted for, 27 residents were injured, eight of whom remained in the hospital for observation Monday afternoon.

Hogan would not identify the missing residents or take any questions about the investigation.

But on Friday, Kenneth McGill of West Chester told the Inquirer and Daily News that he and his wife, Kathy, were waiting for word about Kathy's parents, residents of a unit for those with memory impairment. Police said they believe the fire started in such a unit.

McGill, who declined to identify the couple, said then that he and his wife were waiting for a phone call. At the time, he had hoped it would be with good news, perhaps that they were being treated somewhere that Barclay Friends administrators hadn't called yet, he said. The McGills could not be reached Monday.

West Chester Police Chief Scott Bohn said he met with families of the missing on Friday and again Monday morning.

The Monday afternoon news conference not only provided a count of the missing, it also marked the first time since Friday that authorities discussed any details of the massive blaze.

"Most of these 137 senior citizens were in bed when a fire started in the back of the building," Hogan said. "In moments, it ripped through the building, getting all the way up into the ceiling, creating a raging inferno."

Volunteers from the West Chester Fire Department quickly arrived at the sprawling campus at 700 N. Franklin St. and realized the scope of the tragedy. They found two floors full of elderly residents, many bedridden or in wheelchairs, West Chester Chief Fire Marshal Jack Weir said.

Some firefighters ran in without face masks or breathing apparatus, Weir said; others went as far as they could until they felt their helmets began to melt. They had to turn back.

A video from outside the building shows a snippet of the fire's first moments. A woman, dressed only in a robe or night gown, shuffles toward a firefighter as smoke and flames billow behind her. The man — who authorities said was the driver of a fire truck and not in full gear — lifts her off the ground and carries her away as another firefighter wheels out a resident behind her.

"We would've expected to lose 40 to 50 people in a fire like this," Hogan said. "It is only the heroic actions of the first responders [that] prevented it."

"It is a small miracle that we only have four people missing," Bohn said.

In total, 400 emergency service providers responded to the Barclay Friends facility, Bohn said.

Some displaced residents were transported to temporary shelters. But by Monday, 102 of them had been placed in other senior living communities and 31 were at the homes of family members, Bohn said.

With reporters not permitted to ask questions, much still remained unclear, including possible causes of the blaze, the effectiveness and upkeep of the facility's fire-suppression system, and why authorities waited nearly four days to release information about those who were missing.

At a Friday news conference, authorities indicated they had not accounted for all residents but also said no one had reached out to them to say they didn't know the location of their relatives.

At the charred scene Monday afternoon, it was quiet, with officials mostly huddling outside. A towering yellow crane was positioned in front of the building, occasionally moving debris.

About 30 investigators from a special team of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives were beginning their work there, said Dave March, a firefighter and spokesman for West Chester Borough.

The origin of the fire cannot be determined until these investigators can enter and inspect the ruins. Over the weekend, the site remained too dangerous for anyone to go inside.

The agency expects to work through the Thanksgiving holiday, said special agent in charge Donald Robinson.

"We will be here as long as it takes," he said, "to get some answers for the families" of the missing.

Charlene Hennessy, an ATF spokeswoman, said the team's heavy machinery was brought in Monday morning. Many of the walls had been compromised, Hennessy said, so one of Monday's tasks was to shore up those areas.

On Sunday, officials had been able to enter the site, but only the lobby area, because of safety concerns, she said. Investigators were expected to enter more heavily affected areas on Monday.

Residents who were evacuated were saved not only by quick-acting firefighters, police, and Barclay Friends staff but also neighbors who converged on the scene. Neighbors said they heard a boom and scrambled to help.

By Saturday, displaced residents were forced to adjust to new environments. A local fire station collected canes, walkers, and clothing for those affected by the fire. The response was overwhelming.

Said Hogan: "These victims are everyone's parents and grandparents."