The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

Features

January 10, 2014

Turning tragedy into triumph

Clinton's smoke detector project sets example for state

CLINTON — CLINTON — Four years ago this month, a tragic house fire took the lives of a Clinton woman, her two young sons and her mother.

It was that ending that led to a new beginning: the creation of the Clinton Smoke Detector Project aimed at keeping Clinton families safe from fire. And it is a program that firefighters say no doubt saved the life of a Clinton man this week.

The tragedy

Clinton Fire Battalion Chief Jeff Chapman has detailed memories of the Jan. 22, 2010, tragedy. There’s a very personal grieving process, he said, that takes place when a firefighter doesn’t save a life.

On that day, Clinton lost three generations of a family: Francine Molitor, her daughter Tonya and Tonya’s two young sons — 6-year-old Tyler and 3-year-old Patrick. A reclining chair in their home at 2436 Dunham St. caught fire at approximately 11:30 p.m. and they died from inhaling toxic fumes created by the burning material.

“Anytime that you lose any life, it’s a pretty somber experience,” Chapman said. “You have thoughts in your mind, could I have done something more? We beat ourselves up pretty bad.

“When we lose a life, it changes the demeanor of the entire operation. It’s a huge thing of emotions that go along with that. Every one that we’ve had, it takes a little bit of you with them. Things pop into your head and you don’t forget the images.”

Almost four years later city firefighters know the day as a turning point.

Nothing was inherently damaging about the fire itself. Estimated structure loss according to the official report was $25,000 — “minimal damage” said Chapman.

But one of the hardest parts for him to stomach was that the Molitors’ smoke detectors weren’t working.

A turning point

For Ryan Haxmeier, installing a smoke detector is like changing a lightbulb. Most of the time, he can show up to a home within the hour and return to the Central Fire Station 20 minutes later with devices in place. He does this three to four times per week.

Like Chapman, he was there during the 2010 tragedy and saw firsthand the changes that took place.

“We went into the smoke detector program hoping to save lives,” Haxmeier —  a four-year veteran of the fire department —  said. “This has obviously been saving lives, for sure.”

Clinton Fire Chief Mike Brown said that back then, the city was one of the leading fatality-per-capita cities in the state. The department shifted focus immediately after the tragedy.

“I believe that tragedy set a ton of things in motion,” Chapman said. “We went from a passive program to one that’s proactive.”

The department already offered detectors for people without means to buy or install, but it had no formalized program in place. By February 2010, Clinton implemented the Clinton Smoke Detector Project, making smoke detectors available for all citizens.

“For us, it was just ‘We’ve got to stop this,’ “ Brown said. “We’ve been really lucky since it started.”

Like any device, smoke detectors cost money. Chapman said educators at Bluff Elementary School — where Tyler Molitor attended — reached out to Clinton FD for ways to improve fire safety.

“Initially it was huge,” Brown said, adding the Parent-Teacher Association played a major role in getting what became an expanded smoke detector program started. “We had all sorts of issues trying to contact people on the weekends, at home. So it took lots of time.”

The department turned to the PTA with a modest goal of raising $10,000 to implement a more accessible smoke detector program. The school district returned with $65,000 raised through donations, Brown said.

“The community just came out in droves,” he said.

This goal to make detectors available to all preceded even the Iowa State Fire Marshal’s smoke detector program, Brown said. He added a statewide campaign based on Clinton’s project soon followed.

Immediately after the city started its program, firefighters like Haxmeier were called out for installations on a daily basis.

The department did one installation for someone at 710 10th Avenue South on Nov. 5, 2013. At 1:23 a.m., Jan. 6, 2014, those new detectors went off.

This week

At 1:29 a.m., Jan. 6, Haxmeier and other responders arrived on the 10th Avenue scene, where he said he found an older man waiting for him in the doorway. Haxmeier described the man’s demeanor as “scared” and “shaken up.”

Inside the house, smoke was consuming rooms, yet Haxmeier said the source of the burning wasn’t self-evident; the department had to use a heat sensor to find it.

He remained with the man inside an ambulance with a blanket to keep warm.

“He had no idea there was any smoke in the house at all because he was in a separate room from the smoke and the fire,” he said. “He said if it wasn’t for the smoke detectors alerting him, who knows when we would’ve found out.”

Firefighters found the source of the problem. A small fire resided deep within the home’s furnace. The problem was solved, Haxmeier said, by turning off the gas.

There’s no way to truly know what may have happened, but Haxmeier said with certainty that without smoke detectors this week’s fire would have caused catastrophic damage and another life — either through carbon monoxide inhalation or by the fire itself — would have been lost.

“It was just a matter of time before the house would’ve been completely engulfed in flames,” Haxmeier said.

Today

Since the state enacted its smoke detector program lives lost have decreased every year, Chapman said. In the freshest year-to-date numbers, Iowa experienced 27 fatalities from fires in 2013; in 2012 the state lost 47.

On the flip side, 112 Iowa lives were saved by smoke detectors in 2013, according to state statistics.

“We also ended the year with zero firefighter fatalities,” Chapman said.

The Clinton smoke detector program offers inspections, installations and devices free of charge thanks to grants. Any interested citizen should call the Central Fire Station at 242-0125 to schedule a time for firefighter assistance.

 

VIDEO: Clinton resident Erin George recently had free smoke detectors installed in her home

1
Text Only
Features
  • 7-22-14 water 2 Rotary Club donation gets water to Haitians CLINTON — Nine Haitian communities now have the blessing of clean water due to the work of local Iowa Rotary clubs, including Clinton’s, and the charity Water for Life.Water for Life Directors Joy and Leon Miller have been drilling wells for years as

    July 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • 7-22-14 Emily Evans 7 seek pageant crown CLINTON — The time has come for Miss Clinton County Brandy Herrington to pass her crown on to the next lucky contestant and this year the competition is thick.When the event commences on Saturday at the DeWitt Central Performing Arts Center, seven yo

    July 22, 2014 7 Photos

  • Jhanson Calling America home CLINTON — Born in Russia, Natasha Jhanson now considers the United States her home.When the 41-year-old was born in Russia, the Soviet Union was still intact. When Natasha was 14, the area split into multiple countries. At that point, her family move

    July 19, 2014 1 Photo

  • 7-18-14 Party in the Park Party in the Park a big hit CAMANCHE — Nearly 300 people joined together Thursday to celebrate their community and all it has to offer to its residents.During the fourth annual Party in the Park, Camanche combined all their forces including city councilmen, business owners and

    July 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • 130408_NT_BEA_good kids We're raising a generation of timid kids

    A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • Choir reunion spanning five decades CLINTON — Music helped Dan Ivory form long-lasting bonds. A Clinton High graduate in 1989, Ivory said being able to sing and play in the marching band was a rewarding experience for him, one he has sorely missed over the last 25 years.“Being in a cap

    July 14, 2014

  • Jered Birt Birt joins Northeast staff DEWITT — After eight years of teaching physical education and coaching in the Central Community School District in DeWitt, Jered Birt, 33, will move to Northeast Middle/High School.Birt was recently named the assistant principal at Northeast Middle/H

    July 12, 2014 1 Photo

  • 'Y' raising funds with annual art event CLINTON — What difference can $20,000 make for the YWCA’s mission? That’s the amount raised from last year’s Art Under the Stars event, all of which went toward helping support the association’s victims of violence mission work.“It truly is entertain

    July 11, 2014

  • Slate of 'family-friendly' activities begins July 16 DEWITT — Clinton County has found its “fair niche,” said county fair director Mary Stevenson. The goal is to keep the event family friendly, and with four days packed with activities, Stevenson feels that her group has accomplished the task once agai

    July 10, 2014

  • Whiteside County book A historical perspective FULTON, Ill. — After nearly three years of research, the Whiteside County Genealogy Society and Fulton Historical Society are ready to unveil a one-of-a-kind historical archive for the people of Whiteside County.Comprised of detailed family lineage a

    July 10, 2014 1 Photo

Clinton Herald Photos


Browse, buy and submit pictures with our photo site.

Facebook