Finleyville firefighter, family lose everything in blaze
By Bill Zlatos
Published: Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012, 9:00 p.m.
Jim Askins, a member of the Finleyville Volunteer Fire Department, years ago devised a plan for evacuating his family in the event of a fire.
Sadly, they were forced to use it Sunday night on the first day of National Fire Prevention Week.
Askins, 35; his pregnant wife, Amy; and their daughters, Breann, 14, and Alyssa, 5, were in their six-room mobile home in Unity shortly before 11 p.m. when Breann told her father she smelled smoke. Askins discovered a fire in the furnace room, he said.
“I had a fire evacuation plan with the family for 13 years,” he said. “They had evacuation routes. They knew which window to go out if this situation ever arose.”
His wife scooped up Alyssa in her sleepy daze, and the family headed outside. Askins re-entered and found his beagle Max and cat Mert staring at him in the hallway. He ducked the flames, grabbed the pets by the scruff of their necks and carried them out, he said.
Askins said he got his firefighting boots, pants and coat from his car and went back in. Smoke filled the trailer. He left, shutting the door behind him. He heard the siren of the fire truck he usually rode.
“I knew who was going to be on that first line. I knew it was three of my best friends. I knew the structure needed to be vented before they could enter it,” Askins said.
He used a firefighter's tool to knock out five windows so the overheated house would not create a dangerous backdraft.
His best friend, firefighter Joe Bellisario, was among the first to arrive.
“There was fire coming from every orifice in the building,” Bellisario said. “I was on the hose team going through the front door, and Jimmy was trying to go over my shoulder to put his own fire out.”
He said firefighters had to remove Askins. The home and its contents could not be saved. “ I was sure damn proud of what they did for me,” Askins said.
“When they realized it was a total loss and we didn't have anything, they were crying, grown men. It's very humbling.”
Askins estimates he lost about $75,000 for the trailer and contents. Insurance covers $15,000.
What hurts most, the family said, are the lost family photos and figurines that his mother Janet, who died of cancer in August, had given them.
Askins is a custodian at Bower Hill Community Church in Mt. Lebanon. The church, a Girl Scout troop in Mt. Lebanon, the PTA of Jefferson Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon and others are now raising money to help the family.
“He's a wonderful custodian. He takes his job very seriously and does a very good job,” said the Rev. Brian Snyder, pastor of the church.
Bellisario is chairing the fire department's fund drive.
Donors can deposit gifts to the James W. Askins Family Fire Fund at First Niagara Bank in Finleyville or mail them to First Niagara Bank, 3500 Extension Ave., Finleyville, PA 15332.
The station will accept donations — enough household goods and clothing have been collected — from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at 3562 Washington Ave., Finleyville. The department also will hold a spaghetti dinner from 1 to 4 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Library Volunteer Fire Department to raise money.
“This is the toughest thing that's ever been thrown at me, and with the support I've been given from my department, my employer and the community, I know I will get through this,” Askins said.
“Someday, everything will be fine.”
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