Heath girl ‘a hero’ for escape in fire
HEATH — When their three-story home started burning Saturday morning, 16-year-old Rachel Heil immediately got her two younger sisters out of the house, then called 911.
Although Rachel told firefighters she was just following the family’s emergency plan, the state Fire Marshal’s Office considers her “a true young hero,” according to spokeswoman Jennifer Mieth.
“I told her it’s our opinion that she saved three lives that day — her own, and her siblings,’” Heath Fire Chief Michael Smith said Monday. “If she had tried to go down to the basement, or if they had stayed in that house a few minutes more, they may not have made it out.”
On Saturday at the fire scene, Sandra Donovan had credited a fire safety program at the Heath Elementary School, which encourages school families to develop a Home Escape Plan, in case of emergencies, and to practice it with the whole family at least twice a year.
“We coordinate this every year, with the Heath Fire Department,” explained Heath School Nurse Donna Weber. “They come in every October, into each classroom, and they go over what happens during a fire. They talk about having an escape plan, and they encourage the children to talk to their family, to develop a plan, and to practice it throughout the year.”
According to Meith, the SAFE (Student Awareness Fire Education) program has reduced the average number of child fire-deaths by 70 percent since the program began 19 years ago.
“We used to lose 18 children a year to fire,” she said. “Now we lose, on average, six. But for the past three years, we’ve only lost one person to fire under the age of 18.”
“Our SAFE program brings trained firefighters into the classrooms.” Smith said that each year firefighters come into the Heath school and turn into “friendly monsters” — going from street clothes to turnout gear, and explaining to children why they wear the masks, air tanks and other equipment.
“That’s so they’re not afraid of us, in a burning building,” he explained. “Hiding is a normal response for children, who are frightened during a fire. Your brain has a way of shutting down rational thinking in that situation.”
“We do an emergency evacuation plan with the older grades and send (information) home with them, to work out a plan with their parents.”
Donovan said her family had rehearsed their emergency plan before, and that, when needed, “it worked great.”
The fire that badly damaged the 15 Clearwater Drive home of Sandra and Will Donovan apparently began in the basement, according to Mieth. “But the damage is so extensive,” she added, “I’m not sure they’re going to be able to pinpoint a cause any more than that.”
Meanwhile, the family of seven — the Donovans and their five children — are staying with friends in Heath, according to Smith.
The Donovan parents were out getting groceries Saturday morning when the fire broke out.
The fire was reported shortly before noon on Saturday, and nine fire departments responded to the scene. Besides Heath, other departments came from Ashfield, Buckland, Colrain, Charlemont, Rowe, Shelburne Falls and Whitingham, Vt. The Greenfield Rapid Intervention Team also responded.
On Monday, Smith said flames pierced the roof. He said the extensively damaged home can be repaired, but for now, it is uninhabitable. The wooden home, near a pond, was built in the 1980s and was insured, he said.
Also, all the Donovan family pets have been accounted for.
Town Coordinator Kara Leistyna said a benefit for the family is being planned, but that a date hasn’t yet been announced.