Thursday, April 10, 2008
‘Miracle after miracle’
By SUE WATSON
A Thursday evening explosion of a house on Cuba Street and 15-hour search for the last victim - 9-month-old baby Olandrea Shanelle Elliott - ended in nothing shy of a miracle, according to Kenny Holbrook, Holly Springs fire chief.
Joe Elliott, 68, his wife, Alma, 64, and Michael Elliott, 22, their grandson, were found during the evening search soon after firefighters arrived at the scene, Holbrook said.
All were taken to Alliance HealthCare System, then transported by helicopter. Joe, Alma and Michael Elliott were flown to the Memphis Med where Alma remained Monday with a dislocated shoulder and broken ankle, he said.
Baby Olandrea was airlifted to Tupelo, then on to the Augusta, Georgia, burn center for treatment after she was found alive Friday morning around 10:30 a.m. Joe and Michael Elliott were later taken to the burn center in Augusta also after treatment at the Memphis Med.
Friends and neighbors, who kept vigil throughout the night of searching for the last survivor, said finding the baby alive was a miracle. Holbrook said the fact that all got out alive was a series of miracles.
When the first firefighters arrived on the scene around 7:41 p.m. Thursday, they found Joe Elliott lying in the yard and moved him away from the building.
“He informed us ‘a child is in the kitchen,’ ” Holbrook said.
At that point officer Michael Wilson went to the back of the house with Holbrook where screams had been heard.
“We heard a lady screaming ‘help us,’ ” Holbrook said.
Firefighters walked upon the roof which was not more than a foot and a half from the ground, he said. The house had exploded then fell back down like a pancake with each floor collapsing upon the next and the roof falling to near ground level upon the heap.
“We went onto the roof area to the only hole in the whole roof,” Holbrook said. “The hole happened to be right where Alma and Michael Elliott were trapped. That’s another miracle.”
The two were trapped under the roof and wedged between furniture.
“We got them out right quick,” the chief said.
After the two were safely under the care of ambulance workers, the fire operation was begun to extinguish the flames and simultaneously to search for baby Olandrea.
Firefighters are taught to remove debris layer by layer, working their way down through layers when recovering a victim, he said.
The search continued until 5 the next morning when heavy downpours caused a temporary suspension of the operations.
Recovery efforts resumed at 9:30 a.m. Friday in a steady, misty rain. The baby was found about an hour later.
Holbrook said flames were located under both north and south sides of the roof where Alma and Michael Elliott were found.
The house had collapsed like a stack of pancakes, one level upon another, the roof resting slightly off square on top of the main floor which had collapsed upon the lower level basement portion of the house which was also collapsed.
It appeared the roof was lifted up in the explosion and then fell straight back down, he said.
“It was just like working on a roof before it collapsed,” he said. “They were on the main floor level before it collapsed, somewhere between the living room and kitchen and one of them was carrying the baby. The child was lost during the explosion.”
The baby, which had been on the main floor with Alma and Michael Elliott prior to the explosion, ended up under the floor in the basement before the whole house collapsed, Holbrook said.
The carpet in the living room on the first floor was pulled up from under the furniture and piled on one side of the room.
The paneling in the room came off the wall and landed face up on the floor underneath the furniture.
Everything had been shifted in one massive explosion like a tablecloth that is yanked from under the dishes on a table.
The furniture had kept the roof from collapsing upon Alma and Michael Elliott and some of the furniture had pierced the roof, creating a hole - the only hole in the roof - so they were not trapped under layers of debris.
The two were taken away from the scene by ambulance and the debris removal - layer by layer - began.
“The baby was all the way on the bottom,” Holbrook said - another miracle.
He described the recovery of the baby like looking for a needle in a haystack in which the hay was removed one handful at a time.
The baby was found in a small void space, like a cocoon, that protected her from the collapse, the fire and the water used in fighting the fire.
“It was a miracle after a miracle,” Holbrook said.
“We’ve had searches and long extended situations, but none with this total devastation. This house blew into so many pieces and was so compressed by layers, it was painstakingly slow.”
Firefighters operated on the only premise they are trained - that the victim is alive.
“That’s what you have to do,” Holbrook said. “Human beings can go through a lot and live.”
The recovery effort was intense, with numbers of agencies cooperating and many volunteers, he said.
Heavy equipment was brought in from the Holly Springs Gas and Water Department and from Bain and Sons Construction Company.
Firefighters had to disassemble a structure that took months to build as fast as they could.
Each layer had to be taken off piece by piece, sometimes using chain saws. The materials were thrown outward to the perimeter of the house and the heavy equipment moved it away so more rubble could be thrown out.
The explosion was heard from a quarter to a half mile away.
Holbrook said a lady living on Salem Avenue near the railroad overpass said her house shook by the blast. A fireman living a half-mile away on Rofling Road near West Lake Subdivision reported feeling the concussion.
By the time firefighters got to the scene, the house had a roaring fire on the north and south ends, Holbrook said.
Holly Springs firefighters Rick Haley and Don Buford happened to be the first ones in the search party to spot the baby.
“Rick hollered, ‘I got her,” and Don motioned for everybody to stop,” Holbrook said. “They uncovered her and Don said, ‘She’s breathing.’ That took a weight off everybody’s shoulders. There’s hope.”
Once the baby was moved, she cried a little.
Holbrook said the emotion at the moment of discovery was indescribable.
“You can’t describe the relief,” he said.
At the instant word spread that the baby had been found, a moment of terror gripped the air as onlookers rushed from houses next door to the site crying and shouting.
They were held back by firefighters.
An instant later arms were thrown up in jubilation as rescue workers handed the baby on a stretcher up out of the search area.
The good news rippled through the area and men ran through the streets stripping away the yellow barricade tape for the ambulance. Grown men cried. Firefighters were surrounded by those who had kept a vigil all night and were hugged and kissed and thanked.
Holbrook said Monday no one person can be singled out for finding the baby - the search was a concerted group effort of many agencies and ordinary people.
“I want everyone to understand the magnitude of cooperation among the many agencies and individuals in carrying out this rescue,” he said. “In addition to our crew, we had everyone from the police department, to the sheriff’s department to Holly Springs Water, Gas and Electric divisions, to the Holly Springs Police Department.
Volunteers from the Waterford, Potts Camp, Victoria, Byhalia, Barton, and Red Banks fire departments helped man the fire station while the search was ongoing. Some of them helped in recovery at the scene. Some volunteers off the street assisted in debris removal, he said. Ambulance workers stayed at the scene throughout the entire ordeal, providing medical coverage for recovery workers as well as treatment for victims.
“I want to thank everyone involved, including those who helped block off the streets, to those providing bottled water,” Holbrook said. “It could have been chaos, but it was a well organized group of people who provided the search and provided the positive outcome. This was a team effort.”
The explosion is believed to have been caused by propane gas, but the manner in which the gas leaked and how the fire was sparked is under investigation. Holbrook said the house was not connected to the city’s natural gas system. The fire investigators with the Holly Springs Fire Department and investigators with the Mississippi Fire Marshal’s LC Gas Division are working to solve the mystery, he said.
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