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Fire at nursing home kills nine

May 15, 1997

HARVEYS LAKE, Pa. (AP) _ Nine bodies were recovered from a home for the elderly and retarded after flames engulfed the residence.

About 200 firefighters worked through the night to put out the blaze that broke out late Tuesday at Country Manor Personal Care, a two-story, wood-frame home where 21 people in their mid-40s to their late 90s lived.

Rescue workers didn’t find the last body until late in the afternoon Wednesday. It was the worst fire in 40 years in this northeastern Pennsylvania town of 2,700.

Seven people remained hospitalized today, at least five of them in stable condition. Two others were treated and released.

Firefighters pulled some residents out of windows; others managed to escape on their own. Workers at the home stood weeping as rescuers wheeled unconscious residents to ambulances.

Townspeople said they discovered the fire after hearing a ``poof.″ A neighbor said contractors had been working on the home for two weeks.

``Obviously there are hundreds and thousands of questions that have to be asked. We don’t have any answers yet,″ said Gov. Tom Ridge, who visited the town. ``It’s a chilling scene. You can see how the fire started in the corner of the building and blew out.″

The home, licensed for 30 residents, has operated for 14 years with no major problems, said Mary Ellen Fritz of the state Department of Public Welfare. State inspectors last August found the home equipped with working smoke alarms and exit doors as well as an evacuation plan.

According to county officials, the couple who started the home, Homer and Becky Baker, sold it this month to W.P. Equities Inc. for $170,000 as they prepared to retire. Attorney Paul M. Pugliese, listed in state records as the company’s chief executive, did not return a call for comment.

The victims’ names weren’t immediately released.

On Wednesday, the mayor’s wife, Michelle Boice, had said that one particularly well-liked resident of the home, known to townspeople as Bill the Fisherman, had died. But Fire Chief Frank Lutinski said today that Bill is in serious condition at the Lehigh Valley Hospital’s burn unit.

``He would carry his fishing gear down to the lake and fish all the time and talk to everybody,″ Ms. Boice said. ``I feel the closest connection to him, and I think that he’s the one that’s really got everybody here.″

Peggy Truska, who owned Taft Market with her husband, said she saved ripe bananas for Bill. ``Bill was the pet of the lake,″ she said.

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