May 15, 1997 in Nation/World

Fire At Nursing Home Kills 9 Pennsylvania Town Rocked By Blaze At Facility Serving Retarded, Elderly

Associated Press

FROM FOR THE RECORD (Friday, May 16, 1997): Correction Victim lives: The Associated Press erroneously reported May 15 that a man know as Bill the Fisherman died in a fire that killed nine in Harveys Lake, Pa. The man, identified later as Bill Hoffman, was in serious condition Thursday at Lehigh Valley Hospital.

A fire discovered after townspeople heard a “poof” engulfed a home for the retarded and the elderly Wednesday, killing nine residents.

About 200 firefighters worked through the night to put out the blaze that broke out late Tuesday at Country Manor Personal Care, a two-story, wood frame home where 21 people in their mid-40s to their late 90s lived.

Rescue workers returned in the morning with dogs to scour the gutted home for bodies and look for the cause of the worst fire in 40 years in this northeastern Pennsylvania town of 2,700. The last body was discovered late in the afternoon.

“I’m terribly shocked,” said Sue Smorra, a resident of Harveys Lake. “This will live on forever.”

Seven people remained hospitalized, at least five of them in stable condition. Two others were treated and released.

Several others escaped the burning building shortly after the fire started. Firefighters pulled others out of windows. Workers at the home stood eeping as rescuers wheeled unconscious residents to ambulances.

Townspeople said they discovered the fire after hearing a “poof.” A neighbor said contractors had been working on the home for two weeks.

“Obviously there are hundreds and thousands of questions that have to be asked. We don’t have any answers yet,” said Gov. Tom Ridge, who visited the town. “It’s a chilling scene. You can see how the fire started in the corner of the building and blew out.”

The home, licensed for 30 residents, has operated for 14 years with no major problems, said Mary Ellen Fritz of the state Department of Public Welfare. State inspectors last August found the home equipped with working smoke alarms and exit doors as well as an evacuation plan.

According to county officials, the couple who started the home, Homer and Becky Baker, sold it this month to W.P. Equities Inc. for $170,000 as they prepared to retire. Attorney Paul M. Pugliese, listed in state records as the company’s chief executive, did not return a call for comment.

The victims’ names weren’t immediately released, but Michelle Boice, the mayor’s wife, said a resident known around town as Bill the Fisherman had died.

“He would carry his fishing gear down to the lake and fish all the time and talk to everybody,” she said. “I feel the closest connection to him, and I think that he’s the one that’s really got everybody here.”

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