The blaze burned out of control for 2½ hours, gutting a huge swath of a nursing home in West Chester. It sent 27 people to the hospital. It drove scores of aged and frail residents into the cold and dark, many of whom were rolled to safety in wheelchairs and hospital beds, swathed in blankets.
And hours after the fire was extinguished at the Barclay Friends facility Friday, investigative officials said they still could not account for all of the residents there.
One West Chester man, Kenneth McGill, 62, said his elderly in-laws were missing, and that facility administrators had not yet been able to locate them at any hospital or other facility taking in displaced Barclay Friends residents. He declined to identify his wife’s parents, saying only that they had moved about a year ago into a small Barclay apartment in an area for residents with memory impairment.
McGill held out hope that his phone would ring with word that they were still alive.
“We’re just waiting for a call,” McGill said.
.Officials would not elaborate on the missing or even specify how many people were yet to be located. Nor could they immediately say how the fire began in what appears to have been a well-managed facility.
What is known is that the blaze started in the home’s section for residents who need assistance with daily living, not in the more heavily populated area for those receiving skilled nursing care, a more challenged population. Police said it broke out in a section for tenants with memory problems.
The fire broke out at 10:46 p.m. Thursday.
The blaze climbed swiftly to five alarms, reaching that peak in about half an hour. At one points flames rose over the top of some of the buildings in the facility
As many as 200 firefighters fought to bring the blaze under control until well after 1 a.m. Friday. Hours later, they were still dousing the smoldering ruins.
Neighborhood residents rushed to assist facility staff members, firefighters and police with the evacuation, working quickly to get the 160 residents and staff out from the blaze.
Authorities said 27 residents were taken mainly to two hospitals, Chester County and Paoli. By Friday afternoon, 17 were still hospitalized, all in fair or better condition.
A special team from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is to join local officials, including the Chester County fire marshal’s office and county prosecutors, to investigate the fire’s cause.
Barclay Friends is “fully sprinklered,” according to Pennsylvania Department of Health building inspection reports. It has been cited for minor fire-safety violations in the past, but they were quickly resolved.
Barclay Friends, a nonprofit with revenues of $14 million, has approval to offer personal care to 49 residents, and skilled nursing facility to another 98. It also offers independent-living facilities for some residents.
Paul Swanson, who lives behind the facility, was asleep when he heard the fire trucks and his wife “scream something about a fire.”
He looked out his back window and saw flames.
“They could hardly do anything to prevent it from spreading,” he said as he watched crews continue to pour water into the badly damaged building about nine hours after it was first reported. “It just burned a long time.”
Peggy Conaway’s mother has been in hospice care at Barclay.
After hearing about the fire on the 11 p.m. news, Conaway rushed to the facility. Outside of it, she found her mother, Beatrice “Bee” Stephenson, wrapped in blankets like a cocoon, only her eyes visible. Conaway held her mother’s hand and rubbed her shoulders.
“It was cold. It was windy. It was smoky. It was nasty,” Conaway said.
Initially, residents were taken to several locations, including the Good Fellowship Ambulance Company and a gym at West Chester University, where they waited until they could be placed in another facility or reunited with family.
Jim McGrady, 75, had just turned off the Pittsburgh Steelers-Tennessee Titans game when he looked out the window of his room in the Goshen Building at Barclay and saw people pushing patients.
“Little did I know, the place was on fire,” said McGrady, a former volunteer with the Berwyn Fire Company.
McGrady, wrapped in blankets and sheets, said there was no smoke in his unit and that the evacuation was calm.
Bob Reuther, an Owen Street neighbor of Barclay Friends, was at home late Thursday when his daughter came in to say that the facility was on fire.
Reuther said he saw about 30 other neighbors and staff going in and out of the buildings, pushing patients up a hill in chairs and beds.
“The staff was incredible,” he said.
Reuther said he and other neighbors stayed with the evacuated residents for about three hours, talking to them, giving them water, and trying to keep them warm. He said neighbors were bringing blankets from their homes.
“They were lined up for a block,” he said.
Barclay, founded by Quakers in 1893, is part of Kendal Corporation, another Quaker nonprofit that in 2016 was the nation’s 11th-largest nonprofit senior living company, according to the latest LeadingAge Ziegler report. Kendal is based near Kennett Square.
According to state records, the most serious incident at Barclay in recent years was the choking death of a resident in September 2016. The resident, with a known choking risk, was given another person’s meal. Regulators fined the home $9,750 in April for that.
On Wednesday, the state renewed the home’s personal-care license. For that level of care, the most recent violations date back to 2015 and a failure to properly report the death of a resident in July 2015. The inspection report provided no details on the death.
As for fire protection, the facility’s regulatory record appears relatively unblemished and all problems were quickly corrected.
Many families praised the place in interviews. Linda Barnes called it “beautiful” and “immaculate.”
After the home alerted her to the fire, Barnes raced to find her mother. Beatrice Founds Conner, 90, at the Goodwill Fire Company on Union Street in West Chester. It took a worrisome long time to find her in the chaos.
“When I finally found my mother, she was in her pajamas and slippers, sitting with a nurse who just loves her,” said Barnes.
“They got everyone out safely, it took a long time to find my mother – things were a little fractured.” Barnes said.
Conner, a retired school teacher who suffers from dementia, had a question for her daughter: When would the home’s cafeteria open up so she could get breakfast?
Staff writers William Bender, Howard Brubaker, Stacey Burling, Mark Fazlollah, Joseph Gambardello, Emerson Max, Craig R. McCoy, Tricia L. Nadolny, Aubrey Whelan, and staff photographer Steven M. Falk contributed reporting to this article.