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Fire claims city woman

Firefighters injured battling blaze on Second Avenue

Altoona Fire Department crews respond to a fire on the 500 block of Second Avenue Friday night that claimed the life of Penny Hatch, 60, of Altoona. Photo for the Mirror by Allison Gressler

A 60-year-old woman died Friday evening in a house fire on Dutch Hill.

Penny Hatch lived alone on the 500 block of Second Avenue and probably died of smoke inhalation, according to Altoona Fire Chief Tim Hileman.

Firefighters tried to rescue her, but were driven out of the house, which was largely in flames when they arrived from the Crawford Avenue station two blocks away, less than three minutes after the 7:26 p.m. alarm, Hileman said.

The street was full of smoke as firefighters pulled out of the station, Hileman said.

Chris and Dan Rubine were watching “MASH” on TV when Dan noticed a glare flashing through the blinds from across Second Avenue, he said.

Crews work at the scene of a deadly house fire on Friday night in Altoona. The structure was ordered demolished by the Altoona Fire Department for community safety. Photo for the Mirror by Amy Keith

At first he thought it might be a passing bus, but when he looked from his living room, he saw that Hatch’s front picture window was yellow with flame.

He and Chris ran out, and Chris joined others already on the street calling for Hatch.

“Maybe she could hear,” Chris said.

Then Hatch’s window exploded outward, shattering, and the flames “scooped” up and around both sides of her porch roof, climbing the walls, appearing also directly above the porch roof, climbing the walls, the Rubines said.

When firefighters arrived, the entire first floor and 75 percent of the second floor was on fire, Hileman said.

The fire had even reached the attic, he said.

The fire had even reached the attic, he said.

Based on reports from family members and neighbors, which included the information that Hatch’s car was parked outside, firefighters assumed Hatch was in the house, Hileman said.

Thus, they approached the situation “offensively,” as a potential rescue, he said.

They assumed also that Hatch might be in a bedroom on the second floor, he said.

One of the Rubines’ sons called Hatch’s daughter and son-in-law, who live nearby, to alert them to the situation.

The daughter came down to the scene, Chris Rubine said.

“No one knew if she was in there,” she said.

Firefighters entered, and a captain made his way upstairs, aiming for the bedroom, Hileman said.

At the top, the captain “sounded” the floor to see whether it was solid, but when he moved onto the floor, his weight collapsed the weakened structure, and he fell toward the first floor, 10 feet below, Hileman said.

He fell onto another firefighter, in the process losing his mask and helmet, the chief said.

The other firefighter regained his balance, picked up the captain and carried him outside to safety, Hileman said.

Both were injured.

The firefighter who had been trailing the captain, helping to manage the hose, thinking the captain had advanced into the second floor, fell through the hole and plummeted to the first floor, Hileman said.

He was uninjured, however, and continued to fight the fire, Hileman said.

Given the weakness of the first floor, due to the fire, the firefighters who fell from the second floor could easily have broken through and gone all the way to the basement, Hileman said.

The building was “not sturdy” by then, the chief said.

“It was a very close call,” he said.

In addition to the falls, a group of firefighters was nearly trapped on the other side of the house, Hileman said.

Even before the falls, fire crews were nearing the point where it was impossible to remain inside, Hileman said.

Shortly after the falls, the command team ordered everyone out, he said.

By then, firefighters had been on scene about half an hour, he guessed.

The captain who fell through the second floor received a minor concussion and was treated at UPMC Altoona and released, Hileman said.

The firefighter onto whom the captain fell received minor bumps, bruises and a sprain.

Both will take a couple days off to recover, Hileman said.

After the command crew ordered everyone out, the firefighters fought the blaze defensively, directing water in through the windows, Hileman said.

It turned out that Hatch was on the second floor, in an area that firefighters couldn’t have rescued her from, he said.

“An area that was untenable,” he said. “(Not) survivable for us to get to.”

Hileman based his judgment that Hatch died from smoke inhalation on the length of time the house was burning before the alarm and the amount of smoke the fire was generating.

Hatch’s daughter and her aunt stayed at the Rubines “until they knew for sure she was gone,” Chris said.

‘Friendly and caring’

Hatch was an introvert, according to Chris Rubine.

She was also “soulmates” with her husband, who was also named Dan, Chris said.

Dan, who died last year, was a maintenance worker for Improved Dwellings for Altoona, Chris said.

“Where one went, the other went,” Chris said of Hatch and her husband.

Hatch would sometimes come over to talk to the Rubine’s dog and give the dog a treat, the Rubines said.

Hatch was friendly and caring, said Grace Beere, a neighbor whose three children grew up with the three Hatch children.

Hatch frequently dressed up for Halloween to hand out candy to children, Beere said.

She not only changed costumes year-to-year, but even within the same evening, Beere said.

“She’ll be missed,” Beere said.

Not long ago, Hatch contracted COVID, Chris said.

She went to the hospital and spent time on a ventilator, Chris said.

To survive that, then to “die in a burning house” isn’t fair, Chris said.

Dangerous operation

The firefighters’ initial attack inside the building in an attempt to rescue Hatch is “absolutely” the most dangerous kind of operation the fire department conducts, according to Hileman

His firefighters’ actions Friday were “nothing less than heroic,” Hileman said.

“They put their lives on the line to get to her,” he said. “Someone they didn’t know.”

The situation was one of the “toughest” in a long time for the department — “maybe one of the toughest in my career,” Hileman said.

For firefighters, the interior of a burning building is loud and disorienting, because of the roar of the fire itself and the sound of the engines outside, said Hileman, who, as part of the command team, didn’t go inside himself Friday, but who’s experienced those kinds of situations.

Firefighters can’t see anything, because the smoke fills the interior spaces floor-to-ceiling, he said.

The air is so hot “you can’t stand up past your waist height,” he said.

“All of your senses are disrupted,” he said.

Because of the heat, firefighters generally crawl on the floor, even get down on their stomachs, he said.

They need to be “hyper-focused,” and they need to rely on muscle memory from their training, Hileman said.

“You don’t have time to think of being afraid,” he said.

Firefighters often feel their way forward, right hand along a wall, to keep from getting lost, pounding the floor in front to make sure that they’re advancing onto something solid, Hileman said.

There were 26 firefighters on scene Friday, Hileman said.

Everyone present except members of the command team went inside at some point as part of a rotation, he said.

The last firefighters left the scene about 4 a.m., he said.

The fire got too much of a head start, according to Hileman.

The Fire Department ordered the house demolished for community safety, Hileman said.

Workers from G&R Excavating and Demolition from Tyrone tore the remnants down, he said.

The site was a large pile of blackened rubble Saturday afternoon.

For now, the fire is of undetermined origin, Hileman said.

It will likely remain that way, because the demolition makes it impossible to gather significant evidence, he said.

“There is no reason to believe it is suspicious,” he said.

Friday night’s fire, along with recent multi-victim fatal fires in Philadelphia and New York City, provide impetus for promotion of an AFD program that provides free smoke alarms and fire extinguishers to disabled people and those who live in low-to-moderate-income areas, Hileman said.

Residents can call 814-949-2230 to find out if they’re eligible.

Firefighters can deliver and install the equipment, Hileman said.

All families should make sure their smoke detectors are working and they should create and practice an exit plan, the chief said.

Fire can engulf a house within two or three minutes, he said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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