Central Emergency Services firefighters Terry Bookey and Ian Pennell battle a fatal fire at a home on West Riverview Avenue in Soldotna on Friday night.
M. Scott Moon
A house fire in Soldotna on Friday claimed the life of an 80-year-old Pearl Harbor veteran and left his 50-year-old friend and would-be rescuer barely clinging to hers.
ZeeCee “Curly” Crow died as the home he lived in, at 444 W. Riverview Ave. in Soldotna, burned Friday evening. The owner of the home, Crow’s neighbor and longtime friend, 50-year-old Robin Helminski, was critically injured as she tried to save Crow, according to Central Emergency Services Fire Marshal Gary Hale.
It seems Helminski and Crow were in the home when the fire started on the second floor of the 2,700-square-foot, wood-sided building, according to Hale. The first floor is a garage, with 1,800-square-foot living quarters upstairs.
Hale said the cause of the fire is under investigation but is thought to be accidental. According to a neighbor, Susan Cain, Crow had heart problems and Helminski had appointed herself his caregiver, cooking for him and checking on him daily.
Helminski was badly burned in the fire. She tried to call 911 from a cordless phone upstairs and went downstairs to try again from a phone in the garage, but the phones weren’t working, Hale said.
She left the burning building, made her way through the snow to her home more than 300 feet away and called 911 again. By that time Cain’s 9-year-old daughter had spotted the fire, and her 19-year-old daughter called 911 at 5:30 p.m. Hale said the 911 dispatcher reported that a second caller, who likely was Helminski, spoke clearly enough to be understood but sounded out of breath.
Her condition and the situation were far worse than they seemed.
Soldotna police Sgt. Robb Quelland and officer Aaron Renken got to the house within minutes of the neighbor’s 911 call. They went into the garage and tried to get upstairs but flames blocked the way. They went back outside and met Hale, who arrived to do the first size up of the fire. He was optimistic about what he saw.
“The burning was on the exterior, in layman’s terms on what would be the front right corner and front side of the house, with flames venting through the back roof area,” he said. “I thought we had a savable structure. The fire’s all in the upper portion of the building.”
That’s when Helminski made it back to the burning house.
“Then everything took a 180-degree turn when I turn around and see a burn victim and ask if everybody is out of the house and she said, ‘No. I tried to save him. He’s still in the house.’”
In that instant firefighters were tasked with a rescue mission as well as extinguishing the blaze.
Helminski needed immediate care, as well. She collapsed into Hale’s arms, and he and Renken carried her to arriving Central Emergency Services medics, who took her to Central Peninsula General Hospital.
She wasn’t in good shape.
“She did have burns into the nose area and down in the throat, down in the trachea, which is a bad sign,” Hale said.
Just like the flesh on a finger swells when it grazes a hot teakettle, so does the tissue in the throat when it’s seared by intense heat. Medics sedated Helminski and intubated her with a breathing tube to keep her airway open. She was flown by helicopter to a waiting jet at Kenai Municipal Airport. The jet took off for Seattle, but bad weather along the way diverted them to Portland, Ore. Hale said on Saturday that she was on life support and estimated to have third-degree burns over 73 percent of her body.
“I knew she was in critical condition with just the visible burns that I saw,” Hale said. “... At the last report it was grim. Just what was given to us at the hospital before she was medevaced was a 50 percent survival rate. When she was probably evaluated at the Portland facility ... the percentage was a lot less. So in fact we may have another fatality out of this one fire.”
The severity of Helminski’s burns probably lessened her pain to a point.
“The pain receptors are burned away at third degree,” Hale said. “What happens is you’re numb in those areas.”
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While Helminski was struggling for her life, CES firefighters were struggling to save Crow. Helminski hadn’t been able to give officers much information about the fire or Crow’s location. What she did tell them that Crow was in a bedroom turned out to be incorrect.
“Fire suppression crews located the body not in the general area of where he was supposed to be,” Hale said. “He may have moved, but we figure the fire was between her and him. She surmised he was probably in the bedroom ... .”
Crow was found in a den or office, and likely was cut off from escape by the fire.
“It’s always difficult when we have an individual trapped in a fire, not knowing how long the individual has been in there, has been down. Most individuals die of smoke inhalation and never see the flames, even though with the amount of heat and everything we may see burns on a body.”
Fire crews declared the blaze under control at 7:15 p.m. and out at 8:30 p.m. Three CES fire engines responded to the fire, the first getting there within eight minutes of the first 911 call. Also responding were one fire engine from the Kenai Fire Department, a ladder truck, a medic unit and several command vehicles. Renken was treated for smoke inhalation at Central Peninsula General Hospital and released. No other police or fire personnel were injured.
“He was required by his supervisor to be checked out, and that’s always good,” Hale said of Renken. “You never know what kind of hazards you have in our smoke nowadays which can take you down in an instant.”
Hale estimated that $150,000 in damage had been done to the house. The upper level is a total loss but the garage level has little or no smoke damage and no flame damage, Hale said.
“We didn’t have any winds that evening, which would increase the rapid fire rate,” Hale said. “For the most part our flames and smoke were going straight up.”
The overall loss to the neighborhood can’t be quantified in monetary terms.
Susan Cain said they’d been neighbors for 17 years and Helminski was a “great neighbor and friend.”
“She’s just a good person, you know, she had a big heart of gold. And they were very excellent neighbors that you could depend on.”
Helminski is a homebody who enjoys crafts, cooking and gardening. She takes care of her mother, who also lives on the property, and lives a homesteader lifestyle where nothing goes to waste, Cain said. She is constantly smiling, always upbeat and is content with life, she said.
Crow was proud of his years of military service, which included being a gunner at Pearl Harbor, Cain said. She thought he had a son in Anchorage and three other children in the Lower 48.
Helminski and Crow had “always” been friends, Cain said.
“She basically went over there and cooked for him every day and made sure he ate and was very big-hearted that way,” she said. “She really, you know, sacrificed her own life because Curly probably wouldn’t have lasted more than a minute with his health condition. ... And she’s just a bitty tiny little thing and there’s no way she could have got him out of there with her strength.
“Robin, really, I wish she wouldn’t have done what she did but that’s the kind of person she was. She’s just a person who is very giving and sacrifices for others and was very content with her simple kind of homesteader type of existence.”
Jenny Neyman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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