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November 20, 2017

Four people feared dead from fire at Chester County senior facility

'We are not expecting good news,' D.A. says

Four people are still missing and feared to be dead after a fire ripped through a Chester County senior care facility last week, Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan announced Monday afternoon.

Emergency responders rescued 133 resident and 15 employees of the Barclay Friends Senior Living Community in West Chester when a fire ignited and quickly spread around 10:46 p.m. on Thursday.

RELATED STORY: ATF investigates huge fire at Chester County senior facility

But investigators are sifting through the ruins in search of four residents who have not been found. 

"This is still a tragedy," Hogan said. "We have four people unaccounted for, and we are not expecting good news."

The four missing people include a 93-year-old woman, an 85-year-old woman and an elderly married couple – an 89-year-old woman and a 92-year-old man.

West Chester Police Chief Scott Bohn has spoken with the families of the missing residents several times since Friday morning, when investigators were still trying to account for the residents of the building.

"Their families are waiting for our calls right now," Hogan said.

Investigators believe the fire started in the back of the building, but they have not yet determined the cause, Hogan said. The flames spread quickly, fanned by a wind that Hogan described as "whistling through that night." 

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has deployed its national response team to investigate the fire. The team, which includes forensic chemists, fire protection engineers and explosives enforcement officers, will determine whether the fire was intentional or accidental.

"We're going to be here as long as it takes to get some answers for the families," ATF Philadelphia Field Chief Don Robinson said.

The Barclay Friends Senior Living Community houses seniors with various needs, including people who require wheelchairs, walkers or 24/7 care. Many of the residents have cognitive conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease. 

Many of the residents were asleep when the fire broke out. Flames could be seen shooting from the roofs and windows of the building. 

Chester County officials praised the response of emergency personnel, noting more than 400 emergency services providers responded to the blaze. 

They had "minutes" to get everyone to safety, Hogan said.

"The firefighters told me that they kept going back in there until their helmets were melting and cracked," Hogan said. "Police officers were running in there without any breathing apparatus. They risked their lives to bring out everyone they could.

"Based on the speed of this fire, and based on the condition of the residents, we would have expected to lose 40 to 50 people in fire like this."

Of the 152 people at the facility on Thursday, 27 were treated at three local hospitals, Bohn said. Seventeen of them were admitted for observation. Eight remain hospitalized.

As the firefighters worked to put out the fire, emergency responders set up two triage locations at West Chester University and the Good Fellowship Ambulance Company, Bohn said. About 90 people were transported to each location.

Dozens of neighbors helped rush elderly residents from the center, wrapping them in blankets and carrying them to ambulances on makeshift gurneys.

"The response was significant," Bohn said. "I do believe that in that short period of time, while a tragedy, it's a small miracle that we only have four people unaccounted for."

Of the 133 surviving residents, 102 of them are either in hospitals or have been relocated to another housing facility, Bohn said. The remaining 31 residents are living with family members.

It remains unclear whether sprinkler systems activated during the blaze or if the facility had any fire walls. 

Investigators had only begun processing the scene when they last addressed the public, on Friday afternoon. They did not field questions on Monday.

"We will update you as we go and we'll get to a point where we can answer questions some point further along the line," Hogan said.