At West Chester nursing home fire, a heroic effort to evacuate residents

4-alarm blaze at the Barclay Friends Nursing Home in West Chester, residents many in wheelchairs evacuated from the building, Thursday, November 16, 2017. STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Ed Costa of West Chester had just gotten out of the shower Thursday night when he looked out his bedroom window and saw flames rising from the nursing home across the street.

He threw on shorts and a t-shirt and rushed outside into the cold and windy night to join what became a massive effort to evacuate more than 200 residents from the Barclay Friends Senior Living facility as a five-alarm fire raged at the complex.

First responders and other neighbors spent hours Thursday night and early Friday morning rushing elderly residents away from the burning building, lifting wheelchairs over large fire hoses, and wrapping the evacuees — many of them barefoot — in blankets.

Costa said he ran back to his house and “grabbed every blanket I could find” to contribute to the rescue effort.

“I kind of stopped for a second and reality struck that it’s like 100 old, sick people and they’re all shaking because it’s 40 degrees outside,” he said.

By mid-day Friday, as families expressed gratitude for the rescue efforts and thought about the next steps for elderly relatives who lost their homes and possessions, officials had not disclosed how many nursing home residents were injured in the fire, or if any were dead or missing.

Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Chester), who visited the scene with his four-year-old son, praised the rescue effort.

“I spoke to one ambulance volunteer and asked him, ‘have you ever experienced something like this?’ ” Costello said. “He said ‘this is the one you spend your lifetime preparing for.’ ”

Firefighter Mark Pretz of the Rocky Run Fire Company in Media responded to the fire Thursday night, and said by the time his crew arrived they had to park blocks away and walk into the fire zone to begin assisting with the evacuation, pushing patients in wheelchairs about 100 yards to a staging area.

Camera icon Justine McDaniel
Ed Costa sits in his front porch on Baylowell Drive in West Chester on Friday morning. He was one of many neighbors who rushed to help evacuate elderly residents from the Barclays Friends Senior Living Facility as it was destroyed by a fire Thursday night.

From there, patients were triaged and taken to hospitals or shelters. Costa said by the time he left the scene at 1:30 a.m., about 30 residents were still waiting for rides to warmth and safety.

Pretz and other firefighters then entered the remains of the building to put out the last of the fire and search for signs of survivors or victims in rooms, closets, and under beds.

“Anytime we go into a building regardless what stage of the incident, we are always searching for life,” he said. “What one person misses another might see.”

Family members of the nursing home residents scrambled to reunite with their loved ones. Lori Fitzgibbons said she was panicked as she drove to find her mother.

“My sister was letting us know it was a huge fire, up in flames, a lot of fire, a lot of smoke. We didn’t know any details,” she said. “So you just imagine the worst.”

Fitzgibbons arrived at the Barclay Friends Senior Living facility in West Chester and wasn’t able to get close to her mother’s building. She found her mother, Antoinette Clemens, at a shelter where evacuees were taken. Her building had not caught fire, and she is now staying with Fitzgibbons. Still, Clemens had evacuated without her walker, oxygen tank, medications, or clothing.

“My mother is a trooper,” Fitzgibbons said. “She’s old but she’s very spirited.”

Debbie Baxter, whose former neighbor and close friend lived at the nursing home, wrote on Facebook that she had “never witnessed such heroic evacuation under such unreal circumstances!!! We are so blessed and so many others were tonight!”

Peggy Conaway said her mother, who will turn 101 next week, was evacuated from the building and reunited with her family by 11:30 p.m. Thursday. The family waited in a cold bus until they went to a triage location around 2 a.m., she wrote in a Facebook post.

Sean Kelly, president and CEO of The Kendal Corp., which owns Barclay, also thanked neighbors and first responders — and acknowledged the long road ahead for residents and their families.

“Despite a swift, effective, and compassionate response by first responders, along with Barclay Friends staff and so many volunteers, the physical loss is devastating and the emotional toll, even more so,” Kelly wrote in a statement Friday morning.

Linda Barnes reunited with her mother, Beatrice Founds Conner, in a temporary shelter at the Goodwill Fire Company in West Chester.

“She was in her pajamas and slippers, sitting with a nurse who just loves her,” Barnes said.

Conner, a 90-year-old retired teacher, suffers from dementia and has lost her short-term memory.

By Friday morning, she was asking her daughter when the cafeteria would open for breakfast.

“Already she’s asking me over and over,” Barnes said, ” ‘Can I go back to my apartment? I love it there.’ ”

Staff writers Mari A. Schaefer, Stacey Burling, and Harold Brubaker contributed to this report.