Chris Fanning said he did what anyone else would do when he pulled an elderly woman from a burning home in Milton on Wednesday morning.
Fanning, a contractor from Starksboro, just happened to get a service call around 10:30 a.m. November 4 and saw smoke billowing from the residence at 591 Everest Rd. When he shut off his truck, he heard a woman screaming for help.
Fanning rushed to the house, wrenched open the front door and saw the homeowner, 83-year-old Marie O’Connor, in her motorized wheelchair, five feet from the doorway. Her chair was stuck, and she couldn’t get out.
“I got down low,” Fanning said, still at the scene an hour later. “I must have had enough adrenaline and just pulled the chair out and was able to get her out.”
Seconds later, there was an explosion, likely one of the propane tanks, which were venting when Milton fire crews arrived 15 minutes later. The entire home was engulfed, Milton Fire Chief Don Turner said.
“There was fire coming out of every window,” he said. “The fire was very intense. I believe it was being fueled by the propane escaping into the house.”
O’Connor also had an oxygen tank and ammunition inside and numerous motorized vehicles outside. Crews immediately cooled the propane tanks and went to work on the rest of the house, sourcing water from nearby Lake Champlain, Turner said.
Nearly 30 firefighters from Milton, Georgia, Colchester and St. Michael’s College departments responded to the single-story home, which is a total loss, valued around $150,000. Daytime fires are challenging for volunteer-run departments, Turner said.
“We needed every single person,” he said around 1:30 p.m. “Our guys are spent already.”
Family friend Laurie Scott, who was visiting her mother down the street, heard the fire call on the police scanner.
“I saw [Fanning] go by three minutes before that,” she said. “I look at the house, and there’s just fire coming everywhere, and I’m like, there’s no way I can get in there to get her.”
Thanks to Fanning, O’Connor was already outside, Scott said. Her aunt, Betty Sweeney, was O’Connor’s partner and built the home in the 1970s, she said.
O’Connor was cooking with oil and activated her life alert when a grease fire alighted, Vermont State Police said. She attempted to put out the flames by placing the pan in the sink, but it continued to burn; the VSP fire investigation unit ruled the fire accidental and non-suspicious, a press release Wednesday evening said.
Milton Rescue transported O’Connor to the University of Vermont Medical Center for minor injuries. Scott said O’Connor’s back was red, and the back of her head of white hair was blackened from the flames. She grabbed a blanket and placed it over O’Connor’s shoulders before medical personnel arrived, careful not to cover any open wounds.
“Every piece of hair was all twisted black, like a singe, everywhere on her arms, her face,” Scott said, adding, “She was shocked.”
Fanning, along with fellow tradesmen Joey Lefebvre and Chris Prushko, said they happened to be called for a job nearby that day only. Lefebvre, who captured video of the flames [at right], helped O’Connor move away from her home after the explosion, before fire and rescue arrived.
“You hear one little pop of an explosion, [and] we were worried,” he said. “The fire was working its way down. We’re like, ‘We gotta get back.’”
Prushko, a Milton plumber, said O’Connor still had her phone and cooking utensils in her lap. He was concerned she wouldn’t have a place to stay, but Turner planned to check with O’Connor today and contact the Red Cross if necessary, he said.
With the home went numerous family heirlooms, Scott said, including photos, an antique gun cabinet and furniture that belonged to her grandmother, Ethel Everest, a former Milton town clerk.
But these don’t matter as much as O’Connor’s safety: “She is very lucky to be alive,” Scott said.
Turner said the department will formally recognize Fanning’s lifesaving actions at a later date.
“There was no way we would have gotten here in time to assist her,” Turner said. “We’re lucky in Milton today that somebody did not die in this fire.”