When firefighters arrived to fight the fire at Ken Murry’s Mountville, Pa., home late last month, they couldn’t open either of the front doors.
Belongings – much of it related to his railroading passion – blocked doors.
That was the first indication firefighters were dealing with a hoarder’s home, according to Mountville Fire Co. Chief Dean Gantz Jr.
Inside, Murry’s belongings were piled above knee level. Besides battling the smoke and in dark conditions, firefighters had to fight through clutter, making an already difficult job harder and more dangerous.
“You don’t know the layout of the building anyway. It’s difficult to maneuver. Then you put in whatever’s hoarded … you’ve got no pathway and if you’re crawling, you can have stuff fall,” Gantz said. “It slows your progress down.”
Murry died in the fire. While his collecting wasn’t to blame – his home lacked fire detectors and the first-floor fire blocked the staircase, his main escape route from the second floor – firefighters say such conditions are becoming an increasing problem.
Hoarding conditions are rare, but not unheard of to firefighters and paramedics.
Gantz, who’s been with Mountville 25 years, recalled two other fires involving hoarding.
Stacks of clutter, frequently newspapers, reaching to the waist or shoulder and even higher. Rooms so filled that mobility is limited to narrow aisles.
Bob May, executive director of Lancaster Emergency Medical Services Association, said his paramedics encounter such conditions a few times a week.
“It occurs more than you might think at different levels, and it does present challenges to extricate people from their homes,” he said. “It does delay transport out of the home on some occasions.”
May and firefighters aren’t talking about a lack of housekeeping or kids not putting toys away.
“We’re talking about, there’s a small aisle that you have to navigate through … we’re not talking about just a messy home,” May said. Clutter can make it difficult to move a stretcher around.
Ray Zimmerman, an Akron firefighter, recalled assisting another department with a fire that involved hoarding conditions about a dozen years ago.
“There was a path about 18 inches wide going through the residence and that is where the hose line was,” he said. “The walls of materials in there, each side of that little path, was about 4 foot high and it kept falling down on the hose lines every time they moved. it definitely made attack crew’s job worse to try to get in there.”
He said hoarding conditions are as dangerous as a home without smoke detectors.
Jason Greer, an adjunct fire instructor at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy and a lieutenant with the Lancaster City fire department, teaches about the hazards of hoarding for firefighters.
Instructors use props in training to mimic hoarding conditions.
“One of the biggest problems facing us is just going to be the battle to navigate in zero visibility,” he said, noting firefighters are already wearing bulky protective gear. “Getting lost and trapped among this stuff, whatever it may be, is a huge, huge concern.”
Clutter can slow or halt search and rescue efforts, he said, and the clutter means there’s more fuel for the fire to burn.
Extreme hoarding can also lead to building collapses.
“The house wasn’t engineered to hold this amount of stuff,” he said.
Ken Willette, the division manager for public fire protection at the National Fire Protection Association, said hoarded newspaper can act like a sponge, soaking up the water firefighters spray on the fire that would otherwise drain away.
National statistics on hoarding fires don’t appear to be kept.
Willette said the organization is aware of the issue.
“I probably respond to half a dozen media inquiries a year on this issue,” he said. “I would venture this is happening hundreds of times a year throughout the country.”
Willette said some communities have created hoarding task forces.
They bring together social service agencies and emergency responders to try to help people get a handle on the problem before there’s a fire or building collapse.
That can be difficult, because people generally have the right to do what they want in their home, he said.
Lancaster Township Volunteer Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Glenn Usdin, a former New York firefighter, knows hoarding conditions by the phrase “Collyers Mansion conditions.”
The term refers to a mansion in New York City where two reclusive brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, lived in the first half of the 1900s. The mansion was filled with decades of accumulated clutter and booby-traps to keep people out.
Homer was found dead in the house on March 21, 1947, and when Langley initially couldn’t be found, some people thought he might have fled. Others figured he died and workers continued to remove debris from the mansion.
Langley’s body was found 18 days later, just 10 feet from where Homer’s body had been found. It was presumed he died after clutter, perhaps from a booby trap, fell on him. Authorities figure Langley died first, and then Homer, the blind older brother Langley cared for.
The mansion was deemed a fire hazard and razed later in 1947.
Usdin estimated he’s encountered about two-dozen hoarding conditions at the 600 to 700 house fires he’s fought in 40 years as a firefighter here and outside New York City.
And like the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Houses may look well-kept on the outside, but firefighters know they can’t know what’s on the inside.
“In the experiences that I have personally had, there was nothing on the outside that would have led me to believe that the conditions would have been like they were inside,” Greer said. “Here’s this house and everything seems fine and you go inside and it’s, wow!”