A day after West Chester nursing home fire, few answers

Beatrice Founds Conner has questions — about where she is, where all her clothes are, when she can return to her West Chester nursing home.

Her family has tried to keep her busy. On Friday, she watched her 2-year-old great-granddaughter take photos with Santa. On Saturday morning, she ate eggs and toast and prepared for an extensive shopping trip at the Exton Mall with her daughter, Linda Barnes.

Conner escaped Thursday night’s five-alarm blaze at the Barclay Friends senior living facility uninjured, but on Saturday the adjustment continued for the 90-year-old retired schoolteacher who suffers from dementia.

“It took a while for her to get acclimated” to Barclay Friends three years ago, Barnes said. “So it’s like starting all over again.”

Fortunately, Barnes said, she set up a room for her mother at her family’s West Chester home when her mother first moved to Barclay Friends. But the last couple of nights, Barnes said, she has been sleeping in the bed with her mother, in case she wakes up disoriented. The room is on the second floor, so Barnes also must help her mother up and down the stairs.

It has been a trying situation, Barnes said, but family members have been working together to help make Conner as comfortable as possible. To them, she said, it is not a burden.

“She’s always been our archangel,” Barnes said. “Now it’s our turn.”

More than a day since the blaze injured 27 and left an undisclosed number of residents unaccounted for, Conner was among scores of displaced residents forced to adjust to new environments.

Meanwhile, authorities said, investigative officials were still unable to enter the site Saturday because the facility was unsafe. The origin of the fire cannot be determined until officials get inside the building.

Camera icon Erin McCarthy / Staff
The scene on Saturday morning at the North Franklin Street facility.

“Hot spots are still flaring up,” Chester County Fire Department spokesman Dave March said.

The roof also collapsed into the second floor during the fire, he said, and parts of the structure remained unstable.

By early afternoon, local fire companies were still working in a rotation, bringing their trucks to the scene to help douse hot spots. By dusk, a steady rain kept workers inside their trucks.

They hoped to get the heat under control, March said, so a special team from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could investigate the scene, in conjunction with the Chester County fire marshal’s office and county prosecutors.

“The building is burned pretty bad,” March said. He thought it wouldn’t be until Sunday that crews could get in.

Outside the facility on North Franklin Street Saturday morning, dozens of passersby stopped and stared. There were children, still in their pajamas, holding their parents’ hands; elderly couples walking their dogs; runners taking a break from their morning workouts. Many walked up to the caution tape and looked down the hill at the charred shell of the two-story complex that two days earlier had stood as the assisted living facility at Barclay Friends.

As a light drizzle began to fall, some snapped photos on their smartphones. Others expressed shock at the sight.

“It’s like a tourist attraction,” one firefighter said.

But, for displaced residents, it is a home destroyed.

“The entire Barclay Friends community is deeply saddened by Thursday’s night tragedy,” the facility said in a Saturday statement. “Right now, we are focused on our residents, their families and our staff, as their safety and well-being remains our top priority. We will continue to support local authorities as they investigate.”

Authorities and Barclay Friends officials would not say how many residents were still missing. At least one family was waiting for answers. Kenneth McGill, of West Chester, had told The Inquirer and Daily News that his in-laws had not been accounted for after the blaze.

The fire at Barclay Friends broke out just before 11 p.m. Thursday in a section for residents with memory impairment, affecting mostly the assisted living area of the facility.

Hundreds of firefighters fought to get the blaze under control into the early morning hours Friday. Neighbors rushed to help, too, assisting emergency responders in evacuating 160 residents and staff. Those who were evacuated are at other facilities or at home with relatives.