By Kyle Wind
DUNMORE, Pa. — Patrolman Gene Ruddy likely saved at least eight lives when he ran into a burning building early Saturday, but on Sunday all he could think about were the three people who died.
"I feel like a failure because I couldn't do anything for those three people," the 12-year Dunmore police veteran said. "I got to go home to my family, but those three people couldn't."
Lackawanna County Coroner Tim Rowland concluded after an autopsy on Sunday the three died "as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation."
Authorities have identified them as sisters Nicole and Ashley Price, 34 and 20, respectively, and Joseph C. Fazio.
Patrolman Ruddy said he was on patrol just after 2 a.m. Saturday when he smelled smoke on Chestnut Street. He turned around at the intersection with Drinker Street and looked for the source.
That's when he saw smoke coming from 113 Chestnut St., a building that housed five apartments and Dunmore Beauty Supply. As he approached, Patrolman Ruddy said he saw flames and heard crackling.
The officer immediately called 911 and ran into the building through a stairwell.
Patrolman Ruddy said he went to the second-floor apartment that appeared to be the source of the growing blaze. He yelled into the apartment and pounded on the door but got no response.
Then, he ran up to the third floor to get other people out of the building, starting with an apartment where he estimated five or six people in their 20s were gathered. No one was yet aware of the fire as smoke was ascending the stairs.
At that point, his partner, Patrolman Bill Bonavoglia, arrived.
"I started assisting people down the steps," Patrolman Bonavoglia said. "A couple of them were standing at the top just looking in disbelief."
Patrolman Ruddy ran next door, where he pounded on the door and yelled.
He said he broke down the door and ran into a man on the other side who had been asleep and was approaching. The smoke was becoming stifling, and the patrolman said he could feel the heat coming through the floor.
He and the man evacuated a 6- to 10-year-old girl and another woman, who yelled, "My baby!"
Patrolman Ruddy re-entered the apartment, but the smoke and heat were so unbearable, he said he had to crawl on his hands and knees to look for the child. Even then, he had to leave the apartment to get a breath before coming back for a second pass.
Somewhere in the confusion, he said the other child must have been recovered, and he and his partner returned to the second floor as conditions continued to worsen.
A woman who lived next to the apartment that had apparently been the origin of the fire was initially reluctant to leave and wanted to grab some belongings. The patrolmen were able to coax the woman to leave, but she told them her brother was still next door.
At that point, the offiers said conditions were too dangerous to continue, but Patrolman Ruddy said he was determined to get into the apartment anyway.
"We made it to the landing," Patrolman Bonavoglia said. "The heat and smoke was unbearable. It actually felt like your face was on fire. So that's when I started yelling to Gene that that's enough. We have to get down."
Patrolman Ruddy said his partner saved his life by making him stop, and the pair deferred to firefighters with the proper equipment who were just arriving. The whole scenario played out in five to seven minutes, he estimated.
The temperature in burning buildings can reach thousands of degrees, he said, and one of the first firefighters to enter the building had part of his mask melt.
"It bothers you because somebody did die," Patrolman Bonavoglia said. "It's unfortunate we couldn't get in, and even if we did, with the heat that intense, I don't even think they were alive when we got there."
Logically, Patrolman Ruddy said he knows he did everything he could.
Some of his fellow officers told him the same on Sunday, but the patrolman said he was still racked with guilt over the people he couldn't save.
"He did an awesome job," Patrolman Bonavoglia said of his partner. "You couldn't have asked for anything more from him."
Patrolman Ruddy was taken to Geisinger Community Medical Center and treated for smoke inhalation.
Patrolman Bonavoglia said it was fortunate his partner looked for the problem when he smelled smoke. He said if Patrolman Ruddy had not followed up the way he did, "maybe no one would have been alive."
No new information was available Sunday about the cause of the fire. State Fire Marshal Trooper John Chervanka has told the Times-Tribune the fire did not initially appear to be suspicious.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 The Times-Tribune