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White Oak fire fatal for 2

| Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Two people and their pets are dead as the result of an early morning house fire in White Oak.

It took firefighters from six local departments approximately two hours to gain control of the fire at a home in the 1300 block of Amherst Street early Tuesday.

White Oak Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1 Chief Jim Hoffman said first-responders' efforts were slowed when they initially arrived to fight the fire at 4:26 a.m. because they had difficulty finding a fire hydrant under piled snow.

The blaze was brought under control at 6:23 a.m. but it took authorities hours to recover the bodies of the victims because they were trapped in the basement of the home.

There was no official identification of the victims as of Tuesday afternoon, but neighbors said an elderly father and son, whom they identified as William and Mark Barker, lived in the home and had been residents of the neighborhood for years.

"They were very nice people. I couldn't say anything bad about them," said neighbor Vickie Tomco, who drove the elder Barker to doctor appointments on several occasions and had helped contact a social worker for the son when the father was hospitalized for surgery. "We've been taking him to the hospital. He wasn't doing too well. They were having some problems."

Neighbors said the men had a vehicle, but were limited in their mobility because of health issues.

Tomco noted the men were using a localized heating source in their living quarters.

"They lived in the basement with a pellet burner to keep them warm. It's where they slept," said Tomco. "They had the whole house but the basement was where they had most of their heat. So during these bad, cold days, they stayed down there."

Neighbors weren't sure if the men had other means of heating their home. Neighbor Chuck Messinger said he thought the men resided in the basement most of the time because of their limited mobility.

"Mark was severely handicapped and Bill, the father, his health wasn't too good. So, basically, they tried to stay down there on that one level," Messinger said.

Messinger said Bill Williams was a retired McKeesport Area School District electrician.

Authorities said a dog and a cat also perished in the fire.

Firefighters were alerted to the blaze by an automatic fire alarm. Upon arriving, they saw heavy fire in the rear, basement section of the house.

Hoffman said firefighters entered the home through the front door on the first floor of the home but were quickly pushed back because of high temperatures and heavy smoke. Conditions were so extreme that the white helmet of one of the firefighters was blackened, and the fiberglass handle of an ax melted.

The first floor of the house collapsed into the basement as crews battled the blaze from outside the home. Firefighters did get into the home to search the second floor bedrooms and found no one inside.

White Oak Mayor Ina Jean Marton visited the scene and called the fire a tragedy. She said first-responders gave their best efforts to fighting the blaze.

"The firefighters were there within minutes," Marton said. "Thank God none of them were hurt."

Other departments called to the fire were Rainbow Volunteer Fire Department, Citizens Hose Co. No. 1 from Glassport, McKeesport and Duquesne Annex and No. 3 station from West Mifflin.

The Allegheny County Fire Marshal, Allegheny County police and White Oak police also are investigating.

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