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Amish boy dies; father fights for life

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By Rossilynne Skena
Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012
 

WEST MAHONING -- In the basement of an Amish family's Indiana County home, past a crib and a set of cooking pots, sits a wood-burning iron stove that shows no sign of a fatal fire.

Just a day after flames killed a 4-year-old, family and friends on Wednesday had repaired damage left by a fire that flared when Ervin Hostetler, 29, tried to relight the stove with kerosene, killing his son Ervin and severely burning himself and another son.

Ervin Hostetler Jr. died at UPMC Mercy yesterday, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office.

Plumville District Volunteer Fire Chief Joe Brendle said Hostetler and his sons Ervin and Andy, 5, all suffered third-degree burns and were flown to Mercy.

Ervin Hostetler is burned over 60 percent of his body, said Mose Schmucker, 54, a friend and neighbor in the community of about 800 Amish.

"As far as we know today, he's got a 50-50 chance," Schmucker said. "He has a lot of willpower. But it's going to take that and more."

He said Andy, who is burned over 20 percent of his body, is expected to survive.

Ervin Hostetler, his wife, Maddie, and their five young children had moved into the basement of the 1970s house just a few weeks ago. Two families -- seven people in each -- live in the two-story frame house at 1027 Griffith Road, situated along a muddy road traveled by horses pulling buggies.

"He moved in here 'til he found something else," Schmucker said. Hostetler had worked at a greenhouse but was laid off.

Yesterday afternoon, children in no-frills black outfits played with a dog next door. Buggies of the family and community members who pitched in to repair the house were parked outside.

"We worked until 9 o'clock (Tuesday) night and got everything back -- insulation and drywall and heat," Schmucker said.

Eli Byler, 27, Ervin Hostetler's brother-in-law, pledged that the community will make sure the Hostetlers' medical bills are paid, because the Amish don't carry insurance.

"That's what we call our Amish insurance -- the community," Byler said.

When the Hostetlers return home from the hospital, Schmucker said, they'll have home care.

Brendle, the fire chief, said the father attempted to restart the stove fire with kerosene. When that failed, he doused it a second time with kerosene, which exploded when it contacted the hot coals, he said.

The two injured boys were standing near the stove, Schmucker said.

An Amish woman ran across the street to the home of Joan Griffith, 73, to call emergency officials. Griffith said she keeps a phone in her basement for the Amish to use. Two medical helicopters used to fly the patients landed in her back yard.

Though Amish try not to use helicopters, Byler said, "when people are that bad, we have to do something."

It was Griffith who got the phone call that Ervin Jr. had died, and her husband had to deliver the news to the Hostetlers.

A funeral for Ervin Hostetler Jr. will be held on Friday.

The death was the second in less than a year in Smicksburg's Amish community that was caused by kerosene.

"It happens often, especially lighting stoves ... more times than we even know about," Griffith said.

In June, Ella D. Miller, 32, died two days after she was severely burned in a kerosene explosion. Miller was heating water for laundry when she tried to increase the intensity of a wood fire beneath a large metal kettle by throwing kerosene onto the flames. The explosion caught her clothes on fire and caused extensive burns over most of her body.

Her family and neighbors used home remedies to care for Miller over two days before emergency officials were called, but she died of burns and septicemia, which is bacteria in the blood.

Both Byler and Schmucker knew Miller. Because of her death, Schmucker said, the Amish community decided to have a few people get training to treat minor burns.

Such incidents are not uncommon among the Amish, said Steven Nolt, a history professor at Goshen College in Goshen, Ind., and an expert on Amish and Mennonite history and culture.

"Burns are probably more a significant problem in the Amish community than in the population at large, simply because Amish families have more experiences with live fire," Nolt said. "It varies from place to place because certain Amish communities use different types of fuel sources and fuels."

Traditional Amish communities, like those in Indiana County, are likely to use kerosene in lanterns or as a fuel for open fires and cook stoves. More progressive Amish, including those where Nolt is based, rely more on bottled gases like propane for their cooking, heating and lighting, which means fewer open flames.

"It's not like I think the Amish people have more accidents than other people, but their accidents are skewed toward certain accidents because of the world in which they live," Nolt added.

 

 
 


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