The following is part of a weekly series on unsolved homicides and suspected homicide cases in Fayette County and the surrounding area.
While state police are still working to determine if someone intentionally set a fire that killed three elderly women in 1999 at Dainty’s Valley Elderly Care, local firefighters said that fire, along with others at senior living apartments and personal care homes are ones they prepare in advance for to try and prevent such deaths from occurring.
The conflagration swept through the personal care home in Jefferson Township around 4 a.m. Sept. 13, killing Irene Barker, 90, and Audrey “Mac” Patterson, 84.
Elvira Pasqualoni, 97, was flown by medical helicopter to Pittsburgh’s West Penn Hospital for first- and second-degree burns. Police said she died 10 days later from injuries suffered in the fire.
Four other residents were taken to Brownsville General Hospital and a few others received treatment for smoke inhalation.
Trooper John F. Marshall, who oversees cold case investigations at the Uniontown state police station, said that fire marshal Trooper William Large ruled that he could not reach a determination in how the fire started, and that there were suspicious aspects noted by inspectors.
Fourteen volunteer fire departments responded to the blaze at the care home where 37 residents and two nurses aides were at the time of the fire.
Perry Township Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief A.J. Boni said that he was in Wisconsin along with the township fire chief picking up a new fire engine when he learned of the fire.
“Our truck was the first to arrive on scene,” Boni said. “A man living at the home and bound to a wheelchair is the reason most people were saved. He went door to door waking people up and letting them know the building was on fire.”
Boni said that the fire destroyed nearly the entire building.
“The biggest problem our guys had was water. There was no access to water down there. Our truck was partially burned in the fire, too,” Boni said. Officials said that the closest fire hydrant was about two miles from the home.
Rich Lenk, now chief of Grindstone Volunteer Fire Department, said that the Dainty fire was the first fire he responded to with Grindstone after moving from South Brownsville.
“I just happened to be at my girlfriend’s brother’s house and he was the assistant chief,” Lenk said. “He said, ‘come on, we are going to need the help.’ I drove the truck there.”
Lenk said when he arrived at the site, he couldn’t get to the building right away because the main entrance was congested with cars.
“We took the hose up over the hill and a lady opened up the door, and, I’ll never forget this, her hair was on fire,” Lenk said. “The fire was rolling across the ceiling. The entire hallway was filled with people just coming out of their rooms and the fire rolling over their heads. I’ll never forget it.”
All personal care homes in the state are subject to inspections by the state Department of Welfare to ensure they are in compliance with all regulations, including regulations regarding fire safety. Dainty’s was no different and was in compliance with regulations at the time of the blaze. Planning for such fires is something that local fire departments take very seriously and nearly all could be called upon to respond to a similar type of fire.
There are currently 38 personal care homes in operation in Fayette County alone, housing 736 residents as of figures complied between October 2012 and January.
Brian VanSickle, chief of the Farmington Volunteer Fire Department, said that outside of state regulations for fire preparedness, fire companies and departments have a general idea how they will respond to a fire at such facilities.
“You always try to pre-plan for businesses and personal care homes or larger structures,” VanSickle said. “We definitely are aware of what types of incidents we could have to respond to and how we are going to attack different situations.”
He said that he is certain that the fire departments that responded to the Dainty fire had also prepared for such an incident, but noted that even if volunteer firefighters are prepared, the fire itself and other outside factors are variables that affect how successful such preparation will be.
Marshall, who worked for 17 years as a state police fire marshal, said that when a fire marshal is assigned to investigate a fatal fire, the basic investigation remains the same as with any “cause and origin” probe, but with one significant difference.
He said that state police regulations mandate a second fire marshal investigate the blaze to corroborate findings and that additional forensic investigators are also dispatched to help with evidence collection.
Marshall said arson can not be ruled out because the fire was undetermined in origin. He said the fire was so intense, police were unable to determine what caused the fire. Marshall said debris and evidence were collected and taken to the lab.
Police have continued to conduct interviews over the last year as they continue to receive tips regarding the blaze, Marshall said.
Anyone with information regarding the fire is asked to call police at 724-439-7111.
Additionally, Marshall said Fayette County Crime Stoppers is offering up to a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.
Tips can be made by calling 1-888-404-TIPS.