By Shelley Grieshop
ROCKFORD -- A Rockford firefighter's family had a close brush with death Sunday night as they narrowly escaped their burning home just after midnight.
Dick Pontius' wife, Claudia, their 18-year-old daughter, Kimberly, and their daughter's fiance, Matt Eutlester, all were transported to Van Wert County Hospital with various degrees of smoke inhalation.
Claudia Pontius remained overnight at the hospital for observation; the couple's daughter and her fiance were treated then released within a few hours of their arrival by ambulance.
Dick Pontius, an 18-year volunteer veteran of the Rockford Fire Department, ironically was out on an emergency call at his job as a full-time paramedic in Lima, when the fire broke out at the East Walnut Street home, he said.
"I came as soon as I heard," he said Monday afternoon, as he surveyed the heavily damaged home. A large tray of spring flowers, purchased recently to decorate the landscape, lay at the rear of the home waiting to be planted as family members wearily salvaged what they could from the charred remains of their home. Claudia Pontius' hands were black with ash as she handled the smoke-stained items inside the two-story vinyl-sided house Monday.
Fire officials say the home at 157 E. Walnut St. (U.S. 33) was a total loss and the family is temporarily living in a camper at a relative's house.
Shortly after falling asleep Sunday evening, Claudia Pontius awoke to the sound of the home's smoke alarm. She crawled from her downstairs bedroom, through the kitchen and out the back door, her husband said as he explained his wife's ordeal.
"The OSP (Ohio State Patrol) kicked in the front door while she (Claudia) was heading out the back," Dick Pontius said, adding that he didn't know if the trooper heard the report of a fire or just happened by the burning home.
Kimberly Pontius and her fiance were alerted to the fire by Claudia Pontius' screams and climbed to safety down the television antenna to the east of the home.
"That's why I've never taken that antenna tower down," Dick Pontius said. "I have cable, I've just always left the antenna up for a fire escape."
About the same time, neighbors came running over to make sure the family had exited the dwelling safely.
Claudia Pontius was having difficulty breathing when she arrived at the hospital by squad, her husband said.
"When I got to the hospital, I looked at her face. I've never seen anyone with such a black face and still able to breathe as well as she was. I couldn't believe it," Dick Pontius said.
He believes the fire was caused by an electrical problem in the front living room, but Rockford Fire Chief Ralph Rhodes said the exact cause is still under investigation. The home was insured, and Rhodes estimates damages at $90,000.
Although the family was not seriously injured, their 1-year-old dog, a Shih Tzu named "Skeeter," sadly perished in the fire, Dick Pontius said.
"She always slept with my wife when I wasn't there. She must have gotten scared and curled up in the bed. They couldn't find her," he explained, adding that the family's cat survived the blaze.
Dick Pontius said the wind was blowing out of the north Sunday evening and through the house, allowing most of the smoke to exit through the open windows. It probably wasn't until the couch sectional began to burn that heavy smoke filled the home and set off the alarm, giving the family little time to escape, he said.
The home was completely engulfed in flames when two dozen firefighters from Rockford, Mendon and Chattanooga arrived. The departments remained at the scene for more than four hours.
The loss of the home was a tragedy, but the Pontius family knows it could have been worse.
"I'm just glad we're all OK," Claudia Pontius said.