By Brenden West
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.
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.
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.
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