Rob and Jill Schliebe splashed water on the little fire that started in their bedroom early Saturday, unaware of its deadly potential.
They filled bowls in the kitchen sink and tried to douse the flames that licked a table top and dresser near the bedroom window. Jill Schliebe cradled a cordless telephone on her shoulder and talked to a 911 dispatcher.
It was 1:27 a.m. Less than three minutes later, the fire exploded and dense smoke climbed upstairs, where the couple lost track of the four young sons they were trying to save.
Hot and burned and hardly able to breathe, the couple leaped from a second-story window.
Their children died inside.
“They made a heroic effort to try and rescue their kids,” Spokane Fire Marshal Garry Miller said at a meeting Friday. He showed maps and charts of the Schliebes house, tracing their steps while the fire burned inside.
“The community should know how lucky it is that we didn’t have six fatalities instead of four,” he said.
The home’s only smoke detector was installed in the kitchen but the batteries were dead. Like most families, the Schliebes didn’t have an emergency escape plan and instead tried to create one in the middle of the crisis, Miller said.
“If there’s anything we can learn from this it’s to have a plan to get out,” Miller said. “You cannot create a plan as the tragedy is happening.”
Leaving the house immediately is equally important, he said. Rather than trying to put the fire out, residents should use the time to alert family members and get out of the home. Call for help from a neighbor’s instead, he said.
“The second 911 call we received came at 1:30 a.m…three minutes after Jill Schliebe first called,” Miller said. “By that time, the house was fully involved and Rob and Jill were on the lawn. Seconds count in a fire. They do.”
Miller said investigators still don’t know exactly what caused the fire. A candle had been burning on a table in the bedroom earlier, but Jill Schliebe said it was put out, he said.
Investigators believe the fire started on that table or a nearby dresser. They will not interview the Schliebes again until they “have more time to heal,” Miller said.
“There’s a higher purpose here and that is for them to get better.”
The fire began sometime between 11 p.m. and 1:30 a.m. Rob Schliebe, intending to go hunting early the next morning, was sleeping on the living room sofa. Both he and his wife awakened about the same time and saw the fire, Miller said.
When they went upstairs to get the children together, the fire was quickly growing below. With the two youngest boys behind him, Rob Schliebe started back down the stairs first. Jill Schliebe followed, with the oldest boys at her side.
Suddenly, the bedroom “flashed,” a term that means everything ignited at once, Miller said.
“They had to go back up,” he said. “It basically exploded in front of them.”
Miller said the smoke that billowed up the stairs blinded the family and forced them to separate. They couldn’t find each other again, he said.
Rob and Jill Schliebe remained in satisfactory condition at Deaconess Medical Center on Friday. A funeral has not been set for their boys, Derek, 8; Loren, 7; Steven, 4; and Justin, 2.