Archive for Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Heater likely cause of house fire

January 15, 2003

Madelyn Vermeesch couldn't wait to move into her new house. The 6-year-old had her bedroom all planned -- walls with blue skies topping green grass, a bed with a floral bedspread.

Now, Madelyn will have to wait a little longer.

Thursday night, when the future home of Shad and Kristy Vermeesch was just a month from completion, fire broke out. By the time Tonganoxie Township firefighters arrived at the homesite five miles northwest of Tonganoxie, only one wall of the 3,000-square-foot, two-story house was standing.

Less than an hour later, the telephone rang at the Vermeesch house in Tonganoxie as Kristy was taking 2-year-old Connor out of the bath. By then their dream house, tucked alongside a winding, tree-lined road, was a long-lost battle to firefighters.

Tim Smith, assistant fire chief, said Tonganoxie city firefighter Dave Bennett, who was driving through the neighborhood, reported the fire at 7:10 p.m. At the same time a neighbor also called 911. Because the home's owners have an unlisted phone number, they were unable to be contacted until about an hour later.

"The house was fully involved when the initial call came in," Smith said. "About half of it had collapsed already when I drove up, and we had fire throughout."

Firefighters, who kept the fire from spreading to a detached garage also under construction, were hamstrung as far as the house was concerned, Smith said.

"There really wasn't a whole lot we could do because there wasn't anything for us to save," Smith said.

Basehor builder Dave Purcell began construction of the home in October and the family planned to move in in March. Homeowner Shad Vermeesch estimated the damage at about $100,000.

Smith, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 15 years, said this was the first major fire he had fought at a home under construction. Because the cause of the fire was unknown, the state fire marshal's office was called to investigate.

Friday morning, Nancy Thomas, a state fire marshal investigator, and Leavenworth County detective Ron Ewert, surveyed the scene.

"We're going to do some digging, and it is going to take us a while," Thomas said. "We'll be excavating the scene and see if we can find a space heater or anything else that might have started the fire."

Purcell said Monday that he hadn't received the fire marshal's report, but he thought the fire had been started by a salamander portable heater. At the time of the fire, electricity had not yet been connected to the house.

"From what we're gathering, it was the propane heater the Sheetrock man left going," Purcell said. "You're not supposed to leave those darned things going overnight. We know the Sheetrocker left it on, we just think it got hot, maybe sparked or something."

Meanwhile, the Vermeesch family looks forward to having Purcell start again on their "dream house."

Shad, who is an architect, met his future wife, Kristy, when they were in architectural school together. During the 10 years they've been married they've planned their home down to every detail.

"That house out in the country -- since the day we were married -- was going to happen," Kristy said.

She said the thought of seeing her dream home rise again -- in the same place -- was disconcerting.

"It's a little weird to think we're going to do it exactly the same way and in exactly the same place," Kristy said. "But the spot is perfect, so why would we want to put it anywhere else?"

Purcell said once the investigation is complete, he will begin rebuilding the house. The work will entail postponing progress on another project.

"We just started in a new subdivision in Overland Park, but we're going to pull off and go back," Purcell said.

The loss will be covered by his insurance, he said.

"Everything's insured, everything's covered," Purcell said. "It's just a matter of getting everybody lined up again."

Firefighter Tim Smith said 25 firefighters from Tonganoxie Township, Stranger Township, Reno Township and Union Township responded to the blaze.

For firefighters, one obstacle was getting water to the site, Smith said.

"It was a long trip back to the station to the best hydrant," he said, estimating it was a five- to six- mile round-trip on winding gravel roads. Firefighters stayed at the scene until 10:15 p.m.

Purcell noted that the cedar-sided house burned fast.

"From what I understand, the house went to the ground in 30 minutes," Purcell said. "I'm just glad nobody was in that thing."

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