Fire Chief identifies three victims in fatal Fond du Lac fire

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FOND DU LAC, Wis. (WBAY) - UPDATE 9/24:

State and local authorities are investigating the group home fire that claimed three lives in Fond du Lac. Sept. 19, 2019 (WBAY Photo)

Fond du Lac officials have released the names of three people killed in a Sept. 19 fire at a shared living facility for people with cognitive disabilities

On Sept. 24, Fond du Lac Fire/Rescue identified the victims as:

Taylor J. Lavallee, 24
Lisa M. Eastham, 53
Donna J. Frederick, 72

Fond du Lac Fire/Rescue Chief Peter O'Leary says preliminary investigation findings show the fire was "accidental consistent with improperly discarded smoking materials."

O'Leary says the home in the 600-block of S. Military Rd has been turned over to the property owner and insurance company.

It was around 6 A.M. on Sept. 19 when a passerby reported the front porch of the house was on fire.

Fire Division Chief Troy Haase says four people lived at the home, but on this day five people were staying there. Two of the five were already outside and unharmed. One resident escaped through his bedroom window; the other survivor was visiting the house.

When fire crews arrived, they found intense flames. Chief O'Leary says firefighters tried to find the other victims but it wasn't until the fire was mostly out, and the structure was safe to enter, that the victims were found.

The three victims were still in their bedrooms on the second floor of the house. It appears as if they didn't know the house was on fire.

Haase says firefighters heard a basement smoke alarm, and one of the survivors said the alarm outside their bedroom was working.

The owner of the house says it's a shared living environment overseen by Adult Care Consultants Inc., where each tenant pays their own rent and has a case worker.

Fire officials say it's not the type of facility that requires regular inspections -- at least by them.

"I haven't been in the home before. I can tell you that from looking at it, it doesn't appear that anything is out of sorts, you know. Everything as far as power, gas, everything looks as it should," Haase said.

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PREVIOUS UPDATE:

State and local investigators continue to work at the scene of a fire that killed three at a shared living facility for people with cognitive disabilities.

It was around 6 A.M. when a passerby reported the front porch of a house was on fire on the 600-block of S. Military Rd. in Fond du Lac.

"We know that someone who called 911 made a valiant effort of banging on the door to alert these people to the fire," Fond du Lac Fire Chief Peter O'Leary said.

Fire Division Chief Troy Haase says four people live at the home, but on this day five people were staying there. Two of the five were already outside and unharmed. One resident escaped through his bedroom window; the other survivor was visiting the house.

When fire crews arrived, they found intense flames. Chief O'Leary says firefighters tried to find the other victims but it wasn't until the fire was mostly out, and the structure was safe to enter, that the victims were found.

We learned all three were still in their bedrooms on the second floor of the house. It appears as if they didn't know the house was on fire.

"I don't believe there was any attempt by any of the deceased to leave the structure," O'Leary said, "so we're going to try and figure out why they weren't alerted to the fire -- if the smoke alarms weren't working or if they were and they just didn't hear it, that sometimes can be the case."

Haase says firefighters heard a basement smoke alarm, and one of the survivors said the alarm outside their bedroom was working.

The owner of the house says it's a shared living environment overseen by Adult Care Consultants Inc., where each tenant pays their own rent and has a case worker.

Fire officials say it's not the type of facility that requires regular inspections -- at least by them.

"I haven't been in the home before. I can tell you that from looking at it, it doesn't appear that anything is out of sorts, you know. Everything as far as power, gas, everything looks as it should," Haase said.

The bodies were taken to the Fond du Lac County medical examiner's office for autopsies. The chief suspects they died from smoke inhalation.

"I know at this time they're still trying to make identification. They have identification, but they're trying to make contact with all of the family members to get that squared away," Haase said.

Because this was a fatal fire, the state fire marshal's office is assisting with the investigation.

It's the second fatal fire in the city this year. While the fire chief says one fire death is too many, the loss of three more lives is something his department takes personally.

"I am confident if there's any stone that needs to be turned, they'll do it," Chief O'Leary said, "and they're going to try and find out what caused this fire."

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PREVIOUS UPDATES

Fond du Lac Fire Division Chief Troy Haase said Thursday afternoon there was nothing "out of sorts" with electrical or gas service to explain how a fire started on a front porch, killing three in a home for people with cognitive disabilities.

But Haase did not say the fire was suspicious; the cause of the intense, deadly fire is still undetermined.

Haase said four people live in the house, but on this night five people were staying there. The two survivors were both on the first floor. They got out without injury. One escaped through their bedroom window.

Firefighters heard a smoke alarm in the basement, and one of the survivors said the alarm outside their first-floor bedroom sounded, but Haase didn't know if the alarms on the second floor activated.

"Usually you get a fire on the inside, smoke alarms go off, people get out safe," Haase said, but in this case the fire started outside the house and was spreading before the smoke reached the alarms. "They didn't get enough warning to get out."

Fire Chief Peter O'Leary says the victims were found in their upstairs bedrooms and it appears they didn't even know their home was on fire.

"I think anytime we have a fire that takes lives of people our heightened sense of awareness is even higher. We don't have any reason to believe it was intentionally set, but certainly wouldn't rule it out. The investigators, they never draw conclusions until the evidence brings them to something, and I suspect we didn't have a report of anything, any foul play, but that's not to say it couldn't happen, so I hope not but as we get the evidence together we'll be able to determine that," O'Leary said.

Autopsies are planned for Friday. Haase said preliminary results are expected Friday afternoon or Saturday.

Although fire officials have referred to this as a group home for people with cognitive disabilities, the owner says it is a shared living environment where each tenant pays their own rent and has a case worker.

The facility is overseen by Adult Care Consultants Inc., which monitors their day-to-day life with tasks such as making sure they have enough food.

UPDATE:

Three people died Thursday in what was described as an "incredibly intense" fire at a Fond du Lac group home for people with cognitive disabilities.

One victim was located and confirmed dead in the early part of the investigation into the fire. A few hours later, Fond du Lac Fire Chief Peter O'Leary announced investigators had found two more victims at the scene in the 600 block of S Military Rd.

"They went to bed thinking everything was OK and they wake up this morning to horror," says O'Leary.

All three victims were on the second floor and in their sleeping quarters. Chief O'Leary described the fire as "incredibly intense."

"The people who run this home are working to notify their family and their loved ones," says Chief Peter O'Leary.

CLICK HERE to watch a news conference with Fond du Lac Fire Chief O'Leary.

Two people escaped the fire without harm.

The Medical Examiner's Office will perform autopsies and positively identify the victims.

Investigators have interviewed survivors and continue to work to find out what happened. One of the biggest questions remains: why were the three victims unable to escape?

"I don't think there was any attempt by any of the deceased to leave the structure, so we're going to try to figure out, again, why they weren't alerted to the fire. Smoke alarms weren't working or they just didn't hear it, that sometimes can be the case," says O'Leary.

The home is for adults with disabilities. The tenants rent their rooms. The fire chief described the residents as "ambulatory." Chief O'Leary says the people who run the group home have been cooperating with investigators and providing helpful information.

"They have a person they referred to me as a 'house mom'--someone who comes in frequently during the week to check on them, but these people live independent--that's what they do," says O'Leary.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation, State Fire Marshal and Fond du Lac investigators are working together at the scene. They'll likely be there into the evening hours.

"I think that these people here live great lives. It's just an unfortunate, awful tragedy that we woke up to. It's going to be a dark day for them and for our community. We take this stuff personally when it happens," says O'Leary.

O'Leary tells Action 2 News that the fire started on the front porch of the home and spread quickly.

"The investigation now is going to work around where we believed the fire started. That's where the most fire was--on the front porch," says O'Leary.

Numerous firefighters helped battle the fire. Smoke and flames were visible from the roof. An aerial truck was used to fight the fire from above. No firefighters were injured.

Chief O'Leary says investigators do not yet know if there were working smoke alarms in the building.

"There was a lot of fire showing when I arrived. What we'll find out when the investigators go in, they will be checking smoke alarms. But knowing full well smoke alarms can only alert us of the fire, they aren't going to put the fire out. Fire sprinklers would do that. But in this case we want to see if they lost their opportunity to even have that early warning," says O'Leary.

The fire call came in at about 6 a.m.

Chief O'Leary says every home should have a smoke alarm in each room and all hallways.

"It's just another reminder in the face of this tragedy that we teach a little bit as we go through here. Have fire escape training, planning your own escape in your own home. It's critically important. Never, ever think it can't happen to you. Because it can. And it does," says O'Leary.

Stay with Action 2 News for updates on this breaking news story.

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UPDATE:

A tweet from Fond du Lac Fire Rescue says one of the victims who was missing has been found, but no other details were given.

The search continues for any other victims.

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INITIAL STORY:

Fond du Lac firefighters say two people are missing after an early-morning house fire.

A Facebook post from the fire department on Thursday morning says the fire was at a home on South Military Road. It says two people who lived in the home are not accounted for, and firefighters are searching for them.

They've asked for help from departments from neighboring communities.

Action 2 News will keep you updated on this story.






Read the original version of this article at www.wbay.com.