Fire investigators have recovered partial remains of three people from a Winlock house destroyed in an early Thursday morning blaze.
Three people had initially been reported missing as a result of the fire that broke out in a two-story home, with a cellar, in the 800 block of Northeast First Street just after 2:30 a.m. Three others — a man and two boys — had escaped from the blaze, but a woman and two other children had not been able to.
The Lewis County Coroner’s Office began a hand and sifting search through charred debris for remains Thursday. In a release issued Friday, Coroner Warren McLeod said the sifting search method will continue and the “slow and methodical process” is expected to take one to three days.
The identity of the victims and the survivors of the fire have not be released. The coroner’s office is keeping the family informed of its progress.
“This is a tragedy that has had a devastating effect on the family, first responders, our office and the community,” the press release stated.
Winlock Police Chief Terry Williams told The Chronicle Thursday the investigation into the cause of the fire would continue.
Firefighters from Winlock, Toledo, Vader and Napavine responded to the early morning fire, along with law enforcement officials from the Winlock Police Department, Napavine Police Department, Lewis County Sheriff’s Office and Washington State Patrol.
While no flames were visible, white smoke was still actively billowing out of the rubble at 8 a.m. and crews were hosing down areas of the burned home.
As the day went on, reporters from other newspapers and Seattle-based TV stations flocked to the scene of the fire.
Once the scene was cool enough, machinery was brought in to carefully move items around to begin the search for the woman and two girls who were still classified as “missing.”
At about noon, the excavator stopped. Three firefighters and fire investigator Sam Patrick moved debris by hand and shovel.
At about 12:15 p.m., Williams said, they believed they located a victim. State troopers set up equipment to pinpoint the exact location of the possible remains.
The coroner’s office arrived at about 1:25 p.m. to begin recovery of the remains.
Later Thursday afternoon, the police chief confirmed everyone's worst fears with the announcement three people's “unidentifiable remains” had been recovered from the rubble.
Williams said the home is served by natural gas, and while multiple people reported hearing explosions, he could not confirm if there were any. Puget Sound Energy arrived on the scene early in the morning, and capped the line serving the home.
It is unknown if any other buildings were affected by turning off the line, said Rodel Pagulayan, with PSE. The company remained on scene Thursday to monitor the gas line.
Winlock Mayor Lonnie Dowell told The Chronicle early Thursday morning that he woke up at “about a quarter to 3” and heard a boom coming from the direction of the fire. The mayor said he and his family live about 300 yards from the fire.
“It sounded like someone was trying to kick in our garage door,” Dowell said. “I was getting ready to go back to bed, then I noticed an orange glow and called 911. Someone else had called too.”
Fire District 15 Commissioner Stan Hankins said two firefighters on call at the station were able to respond to the house fire quickly, but there was no possible way to save anyone who would have been inside.
Mark Spalding, who lives up the hill from the home the burned, said he too woke up to explosions. When he and his family saw the neighbor’s home on fire, they ran down the hill to try to help. The fire was too intense by the time they arrived to get inside.
Spalding said the man was outside asking for help and for someone to save his family trapped inside.
“I was at a loss for words,” Spalding said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
He said at work all day Thursday he thought about how his neighbor must be feeling and the tragedy he is still going through.
Next-door neighbor Kayne Garrison said he also woke up to multiple explosions and saw the back of his neighbor’s home on fire. He called 911, took his two kids to the living room and went to see if he could help.
When he got outside, the fire had wrapped around to the front of the house. There was no chance of him getting inside to help, Garrison said. The dad, boys and family’s dog were outside, and the father was screaming that the girls were inside.
"I'll never forget that scream,” Garrison said.
The fire was so close and hot he could see steam coming off of his own home next door. He and his kids were told to evacuate at about 4 a.m. because of a gas leak.
Garrison said he was worried the fire would spread to his house. While preparing to leave, he paused for a moment to consider what to take, and eventually left with his children, keys and wallet.
He added that didn't know his neighbors well and said they had lived there for about a year, and all their kids were young.
Williams told The Chronicle the kids ranged in age from 3 to 9.
Winlock Miller Elementary School Principal Boyd Calder said grief counselors were on hand Thursday and would be available Friday for students.