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Sher Grogg among the Christmas trees for sale at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Dobbs Ferry.

 
Loss of loved ones spurs safety campaign

By Kris DiLorenzo

DOBBS FERRY — A Christmas tree fire that took the lives of Sher Grogg’s only sibling, Don Pyle, Pyle’s wife, Sandy, and his four step-grandchildren on Jan. 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Md., has inspired Grogg, a longtime Dobbs Ferry resident, to campaign for fire safety during the holiday season. 

One of every 34 reported home Christmas tree fires results in a death, and that type of fire is more likely to be deadly than others, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports.

Since the tragedy, Grogg, 59, has focused on spreading the word about preventing fires because, she said, once a Christmas tree ignites there is little time to escape. Such fires spread swiftly due to the “flashover” effect: a tree can be consumed in 30 seconds, and heat from the flames can ignite everything flammable in the room in as little as one minute.

In her family’s case, first responders said that in less than a minute flames from the 15-foot Fraser fir reached the second floor of the 16,000-square-foot home, nicknamed “The Castle.” Within two to three minutes, flames were shooting through the roof. Twenty fire trucks carrying 75 to 80 firefighters from three counties responded to the alarm.

The Anne Arundel County Fire Department surmised that Don Pyle, 56, who was downstairs, may have tried to fight the fire, and called to his 63-year-old wife to get the children out, but the victims were all overcome by smoke.

The Pyles’ tree was due to be removed the next day.

The fire was attributed to two factors, Grogg explained: a dry tree and a power strip for the lights. “A lot of people keep their trees up too long, not realizing it’s like a torch,” she said. “Now I know it’s like inviting a forest fire into your home.”

Bob Howarth, battalion chief in the Operations section of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department headquartered in Millersville, Md., stated, “There has been a lot of conflicting information, but the tree was ignited specifically by an electrical fire. What we released was that the electrical connection had an anomaly and caused the fire.” A private investigation is ongoing by the family; according to Howarth, the civil investigation could continue for years.

Soon after the tragedy, Grogg searched for information. At the recommendation of Vision 20/20, an organization promoting national strategies for fire loss prevention, she contacted Tennessee-based Common Voices, advocates for fire safety, who support fire victims as well as those who lose family in a fire. “They’ve been so nurturing; they’ve actually become a second family to me,” she said.

Her devastating experience spurred Grogg to educate herself about fire safety, which resulted in a shocking discovery. “One thing that terrifies me for other people is that kids sleep through smoke detector alarms,” she said. “They just don’t hear them. Now people are coming up with other smoke detectors where they can hear their parents’ voices. You can record yourself and say, ‘Get up, get up, this is not a test. Get up, get out, follow the drill!’”

Having an escape plan and a fire drill is critical, Grogg asserted, even for overnight guests. Each person should be assigned a way to leave the house — through a window or a fire escape, for example — and a safe meeting place should be designated.

To inform the public about Christmas tree safety, Grogg distributed fliers listing tips for homeowners at locations where trees are being sold, such as Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Dobbs Ferry, and at fire departments in Tarrytown, Irvington, Hastings, Ardsley, and Dobbs Ferry. She also planned to ask PTAs in the Rivertowns to post fire safety information on their websites. The flier can be downloaded from the Common Voices website at www.FireAdvocates.org.

Hers is not a one-woman campaign, however. Grogg, who formerly worked in sales and promotion in the cosmetics industry, has been cooperating with NFPA and the National Fire Sprinkler Association to educate homeowners. She has received significant media attention: a video of her speaking at the gates in front of the ruins of the Pyle mansion has spread over the Internet, and she has been invited to address fire and police departments, most notably the 2016 Maryland State Firemen’s Association convention. Grogg wants to change current legislation to require all new home construction to include fire sprinklers; at the moment, each state can set its own laws. Maryland, despite a challenge to the ruling, has established such a law.

Two of the most important ways to prevent a Christmas tree fire — which many homeowners ignore — are to thoroughly water the tree every day, and not only turn off, but also unplug, Christmas lights at night or when the house is empty.

Fire sprinklers are a necessity, Grogg emphasized. She is having her home retrofitted. “Retrofitting is expensive, but doing it initially isn’t so bad. There are tax incentives that can offset the cost, and insurance also offers incentives; your insurance is cheaper if you have sprinklers.”

She suggested that families install a smoke detector outside each bedroom, and keep a fire extinguisher on each floor, in each bedroom, and in the kitchen. Firefighters advised sleeping with one’s doors closed, she said. If a fire breaks out elsewhere, and there is no immediate means of escape, such as through a window, the fire can temporarily be delayed from entering the room. The occupant should feel the door to see if it’s hot, and then create a blockade against it before calling 911. Someone sleeping with an open bedroom door is likely to be quickly overcome with smoke; most people die from smoke inhalation, not burns.

Any type of home can go up in flames. “Don’s house was like a fortress,” Grogg said of the multimillion-dollar residence. “It was built with construction like what’s found in commercial buildings. It had beams that were really heavy, and they just melted away.” Though the smoke detectors were connected to alarms at the fire station, the family didn’t have time to escape.

As a thank-you to the firefighters who rushed to her brother’s home, Grogg instituted a challenge, #DoItForDon, to award cash prizes to fire departments and fire service organizations; entry information is on the Common Voices website. The campaign adopted the slogan Don Pyle’s colleagues at Reston, Va.-based IT company ScienceLogic often used in reference to their CEO: “Do it for Don.”

This Christmas will be a different one for Grogg’s family: her husband, Steven, a civil engineer with the McLaren Engineering Group in West Nyack; daughter, Shelly, who is in graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, studying public administration; and son, Sean, a Boston University junior studying film. It will be the first Christmas they haven’t visited Annapolis.

“This is to be my kids’ first Christmas at home,” Grogg explained, “because for the last 15 years, we stayed at my brother’s house. I would wake up in the middle of the night and see that the Christmas tree was on pretty much 24/7. I always thought it was safe there.”


Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


 

DECember 16, 2016

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