While on patrol in the town of Alexandria early Tuesday morning, troopers Scott D. Whitmore and Nichole K. Turck saw a glow in the sky several miles away, so they went to investigate.
What happened next, Trooper Whitmore said, is something he’ll never forget. The two troopers are now being credited with saving an Orleans couple from their farmhouse that was consumed by a fast-spreading fire that also leveled a large dairy barn and two other structures.
“Right place, right time,” he said Tuesday night, admitting “it was amazing.”
Arriving shortly after 1 a.m. at the home of Richard J. and Phyllis D. Kennell, the troopers used their flashlights to knock on the front windows of the farmhouse at 38150 County Route 13 to alert the sleeping couple that the back of the dwelling was engulfed in flames.
“He popped up from his bed and he came to the kitchen door,” Trooper Turck said. “We just told him he had to get out.”
In the confusion, the 85-year-old man — just in his skivvies — took a moment to tell the troopers that his wife was still inside, where she was asleep in the living room.
By then, good Samaritan Jamie Parker, who was on his way home from work, had stopped. And he and the two troopers found the 85-year-old woman in the billowing smoke, they said. Trooper Turck crawled on the floor to escape the smoke.
Mr. Parker grabbed her from the back and the troopers picked her up from the front to carry her and her walker to the door and out of the burning house.
When they arrived, flames were crawling up the eaves and approaching the door. Within a few minutes, the house was engulfed. Smoke detectors inside went off, but apparently the couple did not hear them, Trooper Turck said
They regretted they were unable to save the couple’s 8-year-old husky, she said.
But they acknowledged that they had to be at the corner of County Route 2 and Shoulette Road at that exact moment to see the glow in the sky about five miles away, Trooper Turck said. A minute later and it might not have been a happy ending.
The spectacular blaze destroyed the 133-year-old farmhouse, a large barn, chicken coop and another shed. Fire investigators have not determined the cause.
It took 16 fire departments about 2½ hours to get the blaze under control, LaFargeville Fire Chief Wade P. Ingalls said.
With strong winds kicking up embers from the flames, the two troopers and the couple sat in the patrol car until fire trucks arrived. It seemed like forever before help to extinguish the blaze was there, Trooper Turck said.
The news of the amazing rescue quickly spread in the Alexandria Bay barracks. Many of their co-workers congratulated them.
“No doubt in my mind, they saved their lives,” said Sgt. Edward C. Fillingham, station commander of the Alexandria Bay barracks. “They made my day. It’s been some time that we’ve had a rescue like that.”
Trooper Turck, an 11-year veteran of the state police who recently transferred from the Watertown barracks, and Trooper Whitmore, who has been on the job for eight years, had been partners only one or two times before on the midnight to 5 a.m. patrols, they said. And it was the first time they had ever experienced such a rescue in their careers, only working traffic detail at fires in the past.
The elderly couple was taken by ambulance to River Hospital in Alexandria Bay, where he was treated for smoke inhalation and she for observation before being discharged. Before the fire, the woman had to use oxygen tanks for breathing, said Fred D. Lampman, deputy director of Jefferson County Fire and Emergency Management.
As soon as they could, the two troopers went to see how the Kennells were doing at the hospital, where they were greeted by handshakes and tears from family members, Trooper Turck said.
Back at the scene, firefighters had to use tankers to truck water about two miles and fill portable pools at the fire site. The Clayton Fire Department ladder truck was also on the scene, Mr. Ingalls said.
During the inferno, several 2-foot-tall oxygen tanks exploded inside the house, which hampered firefighters’ efforts. They were also concerned with a couple of propane tanks on the property. The wind was also a concern, fire officials said.
With the fire spreading quickly from building to building, firefighters also had to come up with a strategy to attack the blaze, Chief Ingalls said.
“It spread very quickly. You had to decide which building to fight the fire,” he said.
The couple lost all of their belongings, including their car. Fire officials said they believe they had no insurance because they told firefighters that they recently terminated it. They were going to stay with a daughter in Watertown. The American Red Cross was called in to help the couple.
Before the fire, the couple was looking at moving into an assisted-living facility, Sgt. Fillingham said.