Panton fire claims one life; firefighter saves a woman

PANTON — A Panton fire early on Monday morning claimed the life of one woman and destroyed a home, but firefighters probably saved the life of another woman living at the Route 22A home, according to Vergennes Fire Department officials.
Muriel Neel, 63, perished in the fire, to which Vergennes Deputy Chief and neighbor Matt Fraley alerted his department shortly after 3:30 a.m. on Monday.
According to Vermont State Police Det. Sgt. Tom Williams, once firefighters had extinguished a blaze that destroyed the one-story structure, they found Neel’s body in the rear of the 1,456-square-foot modular home on the highway’s west side, about a mile south of Vergennes.
In a Tuesday press release, Williams said investigators could not pinpoint the cause of the fire, but that it was not suspicious. He noted, however, “The fire started at the rear of the residence on an exterior deck. A smoking area was located within this area.”
The news could have been worse. Fraley called 911 almost immediately after he left for work early that morning, said Vergennes Fire Chief Jim Breur, whose department received help from the Addison and Ferrisburgh departments. 
“It’s right next door to Matt’s house. The way it was found was Matt was coming out of his driveway,” Breur said. “He was the one who actually called it in.”
Fraley described the incident.
“I saw a glow, and instantly knew what the glow was, a fire, so I jumped in my truck and took off down the road,” Fraley said. “And it was right there.”
The next three minutes before the first city firefighters arrived probably proved to be crucial to saving a life. According to Williams, VSP investigators determined the fire started on the home’s west side. Winds of up to 30 mph were blowing in from Lake Champlain and fanning the flames. The home’s metal roof helped contain the blaze in the structure.
Fraley said, “It went from the back of the house on fire to the whole house on fire,” between the time he pulled in the driveway and the rapid response of the rest of his department.
Fraley, dressed for work, not for firefighting, saw Muriel Neel’s husband, Harold Neel, 68, in the yard.
“I asked the gentleman if anyone was still inside, and he said, ‘Yes, they’re still inside,’” Fraley recounted, referring to his wife and Susan Idle, 51.
Breur described what city firefighters saw when they arrived: Fraley helping Idle, also a resident of the home, out the front door.
“Actually, Matt got her out as everybody was pulling onto the scene,” Breur said. “He couldn’t get in the building, but he was by the front door, calling into them. She could hear a voice and followed it, and he grabbed her as soon as he could.”
Idle was transported to the University of Vermont Medical Center with second- and third-degree burns, but according to VSP was expected to recover.
Fraley said he went to the front stoop and got on his hands and knees to get below the smoke that was billowing out. He’s not sure how long he shouted into the home.
“Time doesn’t register at that point. I want to say it might have been 30 seconds, maybe,” he said. “It was completely engulfed in smoke.”
Finally, he saw Idle approach.
“I don’t know if she was following my voice or not, but she came to the door, and I got her out. She obviously had burns on her, so I got rescue rolling as well,” he said. “There was no going in. It was too smoky, too hot.”
Breur was reluctant to speculate on possible other outcomes, but acknowledged it was fortunate Fraley happened on the scene so quickly.
“Could it have been worse?” he said. “Yes.”
Because of the conditions — including the wind and the metal roof — Breur said there was nothing firefighters could do to salvage the home, which according to VSP partially collapsed during the incident. When the Vergennes department arrived three minutes behind Fraley, Breur said he saw “a fully involved house fire.”
Because of those same conditions, it took hours for firefighters to put out the fire and protect outbuildings on the site. Fraley, who served as incident commander because he was first on the scene, said it was necessary to close Route 22A from about 4 to 8 a.m.
“We had so many trucks on the road it was difficult to get through,” Fraley said. “We didn’t have personnel to maintain traffic control because I was using them all for firefighting, so we shut the road down for safety reasons.”
Breur said there was a full response of 28 Vergennes firefighters, with 30 or more combined from Ferrisburgh and Addison joining them along with a dozen trucks from the three departments.
“We emptied all three stations,” Breur said, adding that the Charlotte department was on standby to help Ferrisburgh and New Haven stood by ready to help Vergennes if needed at another fire.
Especially given the conditions, Breur praised firefighters’ performance.
“Those three departments did a hell of a job. We were working against the wind. We were working against a hell of a lot of stuff. They did a fantastic job of knocking it down and taking care of it,” he said.
For many firefighters, Monday’s blaze marked a sad first. It was Breur’s first fire fatality as the city chief, and for many responders it was their first fire with a death.
Breur said that is not a situation department leaders take lightly, and that a statewide Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team is ready to offer counseling to firefighters and responders who need it.
“The three chiefs were all monitoring their firefighters on the scene,” Breur said. “If we see anything peculiar, we’ll give them the opportunity to get in touch with the team.”
So far, Breur said, everyone seems to be doing well, but leadership will continue to be mindful that although a far greater tragedy struck a family, their people also might need care.
“You can’t do like we did 40 years ago, and go back from a fatal fire and have everybody just sit around and drink and talk about it,” he said. “We’ve come a long way since then.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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