It is the second deadly mobile home fire in as many months that claimed the lives of two twin 14-year-old girls, Cassandra and Catherine Colon, this morning in Pahokee, said Battalion Chief Sam Haubert. And just like the first, the fire was a preventable tragedy.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office was already on the scene at a mobile home on Main Street in Pahokee around 1 a.m. on May 15 when rescue crews with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue arrived to provide assistance. About a third of the 50-foot-long home was already engulfed in flames.
The responding rescue crews spotted one of the girl’s arms reaching out of the window of the home and tried without success to pull her out.
“It looks like she tried to work her arms out of the window, but she was an adult-sized person,” reported Chief Haubert. “If you can picture a couple of guys standing on the tongue of a mobile home trying to work an unconscious person out of a 20-inch window, they just couldn’t do it.”
Crews used a chainsaw to make the window opening bigger, while a second crew went inside to extract a girl. A third crew managed to make its way inside the home to find the girl’s sister and rescue her from the fire, as well.
The crews managed to resuscitate both girls, transporting them to Lakeside Medical Center, where both later died from apparent smoke inhalation.
The girls’ mother, whose room was on the other side of the trailer, managed to escape from the fire without injury. Strewn across the lawn of the mobile home property hours after the fire was a garden hose fire fighters believe the mother used to try to put out the fire on her own. A woman who was fishing around the time and saw the flames called 911.
At this point, an investigation on why the fire broke out focuses on an approximate 50-foot extension cord that was connected to an air conditioning unit and had items piled on top of it. The resistance created from having things weighing the cord down may have built up enough heat to spark the kind of fire that consumed the bedroom that was shared by the two girls, the chief said.
“In a trailer, it’s a matter of mere minutes,” said the chief. “Once a fire starts, it doubles in size every minute.”
And in a room that was only about 9 feet by 9 feet in size, the fire was especially dangerous. A nearby mobile home also suffered some fire damage, but avoided more significant damage thanks to the work of rescue crews.
The tragedy underscores the importance of having functioning smoke detectors in the home. According to the chief, a smoke detector was installed in the room, but it did not have a battery in it.
“We can’t help but think that would have been a factor in the girls being able to get out of there,” the chief said.
In response to the tragedy, and another mobile home fire in South Bay last month that also killed one, the fire department canvassed area mobile home parks and getting as many smoke detectors distributed and installed in homes.
Palm Beach Fire Rescue has moved up events this week in South Bay and Pahokee to distribute alarms.
Hearing an alert within the first few moments of a fire is essential, explained Chief Haubert. In the case of the two girls, neither suffered burns. It was the smoke they inhaled, investigators believe, that stopped them before they had a chance to escape.
“With the synthetic things that burn that we’re filling our homes with these days, two or three breaths of that and you’re rendered unconscious,” explained the chief.
In the wake of the fire, Chief Haubert recognizes the work of his crews, who did the best job of responding to the fire and containing it as can be expected.
According to the chief, the rescue took no more than five minutes, and fire fighters were able to control the fire within 20 minutes of arriving – a tremendous job for the approximately 23 members of the fire department that responded. Unfortunately, too much time had passed for the two girls.
“These guys are rescuing, resuscitating, and transporting all in one. They’re all physically exhausted after that,” he said. “The girls had the best chance of survival that anybody could have, but too much time went by, they breathed in too much smoke.”
It is why the fire department will shift into working to keep fires from claiming more lives.
“This is something that we can’t ignore,” said the chief. “We have smoke detectors that we will get out, and get as many installed as we can. This was preventable.”