Archive for Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Lightning bolt ignites house

September 24, 2003

A fund has been established for Jarbalo residents who lost everything when their house burned to the ground after a Thursday morning lightning strike.

Shirley and Lester Koch, who since 1988 had lived in 22000 block of Dempsey, watched late Thursday afternoon as firefighters sprayed water on hotspots in the charred remains of their home. The house was owned by Phil Jeannin, who lives in Tonganoxie.

Despite the day's half-inch or so of rainfall and hours of work put in by about 20 volunteer firefighters from four fire departments, parts of the house continued to burn late into the afternoon. Firefighters returned at midnight, and again the next day, to continue efforts.

Unfortunately, the Kochs had no rental insurance to replace the contents of their home.

"You don't expect this kind of thing," Shirley Koch said. "We've been married 37 years -- you don't think this kind of thing's going to happen to you."

Saving the poodle

The Koch's grown daughter, Tammy Koch, saw the lightning bolt that is believed to have started the fire. Tammy was driving past the house at the time.

"I saw the lightning," Tammy said. "It had a big ball at the end of it. I thought it hit the house."

Tammy stopped by her parents' house and went inside to check.

"There was no smoke just inside, but when I opened the door to the upstairs I saw smoke," Tammy said.

She found the family's 13-year-old poodle, Nikki, who was fine, and took her outside. Then she used her cell phone to call 911.

Tammy left to pick up her father, who works at an area farm. On the way, she called her mother's cell phone.

When her mother, Shirley Koch, answered her cell phone, she was just leaving Leavenworth. It was an agonizing trip home as she worried how much damage there would be. As she neared Jarbalo, she knew it was very bad news.

"It was unbelievable," Shirley said. "The closer I got I saw smoke. And then when I started coming out of Jarbalo, I saw fire. I started to cry."

Shirley glanced at blackened pile that had been a two-story farmhouse with a new front porch.

"It's just unbelievable," Shirley said. "We've been here since September 1988. Everything is gone."

Of her possessions, the most missed, she said would be her genealogy files. For the past seven years, Koch had worked on compiling family photographs and documents. These, along with her computer, were destroyed by the fire. But fortunately, she said, she would still have access to some of her records that were stored on a friend's computer.

Fire through the roof

Tom Pulkrabek, chief of Tonganoxie Township Fire Department, had just returned from Lawrence when Tonganoxie and Alexandria township fire departments were called out.

Immediately, Pulkrabek drove the 2.5 miles from his house to the fire station, picked up a fire truck and headed toward the Koch house, which is about 7 1/2 miles from the fire station. Five miles of the route is on County Road 30, a hilly, gravel road. It was raining. Pulkrabek drove as fast as he could, taking care not to have an accident.

"It wasn't blinding rain, but it was raining pretty hard," Pulkrabek said. "If you go up a dirt road, and you've got a very heavy truck and it's slick, you've got to be careful. It's going to do more harm than good if you go off the road."

By the time Pulkrabek -- who was the first firefighter on the scene -- arrived, fire was coming through the roof of the house.

Within minutes other firefighters from Alexandria Township arrived. Stranger Township and Tonganoxie City fire departments also helped battle the blaze.

But in the end, by about 5 p.m., the house was pretty much leveled. And with it, of course, the contents.

Diane Bretthauer of The Insurance Center, said the home, insured for $70,000, was a total loss.

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