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Heath fire victim lauded for quick thinking

To be honored for saving siblings from fire

  • Recorder/Diane Broncaccio<br/>Rachel Heil, left, and her mother, Sandra Donovan, sit together at Mohawk Trail Regional School. Heil is being honored for safely evacuating her siblings from the family home during a devastating fire.

    Recorder/Diane Broncaccio
    Rachel Heil, left, and her mother, Sandra Donovan, sit together at Mohawk Trail Regional School. Heil is being honored for safely evacuating her siblings from the family home during a devastating fire.

  • Recorder/Diane Broncaccio<br/>Rachel Heil, left, and her mother, Sandra Donovan, sit together at Mohawk Trail Regional School. Heil is being honored for safely evacuating her siblings from the family home during a devastating fire.

    Recorder/Diane Broncaccio
    Rachel Heil, left, and her mother, Sandra Donovan, sit together at Mohawk Trail Regional School. Heil is being honored for safely evacuating her siblings from the family home during a devastating fire.

  • Recorder/Diane Broncaccio<br/>Rachel Heil is being honored for safely evacuating her siblings from the family home during a devastating fire.

    Recorder/Diane Broncaccio
    Rachel Heil is being honored for safely evacuating her siblings from the family home during a devastating fire.

  • Recorder/Diane Broncaccio<br/>Rachel Heil, left, and her mother, Sandra Donovan, sit together at Mohawk Trail Regional School. Heil is being honored for safely evacuating her siblings from the family home during a devastating fire.
  • Recorder/Diane Broncaccio<br/>Rachel Heil, left, and her mother, Sandra Donovan, sit together at Mohawk Trail Regional School. Heil is being honored for safely evacuating her siblings from the family home during a devastating fire.
  • Recorder/Diane Broncaccio<br/>Rachel Heil is being honored for safely evacuating her siblings from the family home during a devastating fire.

HEATH — In less time than it takes to drive to the store for a carton of milk, Will and Sandra Donovan and their five children lost their home and all their possessions to a Saturday morning house fire in early September. But their children got out unscathed, thanks to their clear-thinking older sister, 16-year-old Rachel Heil.

On Tuesday morning, during a school assembly, Rachel will be given a “Young Hero’s Award” from the Heath Fire Department, for getting her younger sister and brother out safely, before the rapidly spreading fire caused the roof to collapse.

On the day of the blaze, Fire Chief Michael Smith had called the Mohawk student “a hero” for getting her siblings out of the house and following the family’s emergency safety plan, which the family had established well before the fire, and had even practiced. In early September, as she watched the still-smoldering home she had grown up in, Sandy Donovan said she was grateful that the Heath Elementary School and town Fire Department had been proactive, in stressing the importance of emergency family planning to the students.

The Donovan parents had left Rachel in charge that morning, as they headed down to Avery’s Store in Charlement to pick up some groceries. Rachel was in the shower when they left, and when she finished, she noticed the house was “full of smoke.” She threw on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt.

“My little brother and sister were playing video games,” she said. Rachel said they had noticed the smoke, but just thought it was cooking smoke.

“At first, they thought I was kidding, when I told them to get out. But then they saw the smoke coming up from the basement, and knew it was for real. Then they started moving very fast.”

“She followed the plan,” Rachel’s mother continued. “She grabbed the kids, the dogs, and the phone and walked out to the designated meeting spot.

Because there is no cell phone reception on Clearwater Drive in Heath, Rachel took her brother and sister, ages 9 and 12, to a neighbor’s house and called the fire department. Her parents came back within the hour, to find a fleet of fire trucks at their home and flames shooting up through the roof.

Since the fire, the family has been staying in a mobile home on their property. But it isn’t winterized, and the family is hoping to move into a house in Colrain before the cold weather really hits.

When they moved into the mobile home, “the first thing we did was walk around and replace all the batteries in the smoke alarms,” said Donovan.

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.”

When Rachel was asked if she had any advice for others in that situation, she hesitated. Although the fire was almost two months ago, her voice still chokes up a little when she talks about it.

So her mother answered: “Get an emergency plan in place. If (the kids) had been any slower, they wouldn’t have made it,” Donovan said.

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