A historic home that had stood outside the town of Felton for almost two centuries was completely demolished Tuesday by a blaze started by leaking propane gas.
A neighbor reported the fire at 1235 Peach Basket Rd. at 1:48 p.m., said Chief Deputy State Fire Marshal B. Scott Bullock.
Felton Community Volunteer Fire Company First Assistant Fire Chief Jimmy Moxley, who lives only a half-mile from the home, got to the scene in his personal vehicle even before the company’s fire trucks arrived.
“I was there very fast, within a minute,” he said. “The house was fully involved [in fire] when I got there.”
Seeing the severity of the blaze, Moxley said a second alarm was raised within minutes.
Crews initially had to fight the fire from a distance due to the danger posed not only by the flames but by ammunition that apparently had been stored inside, Moxley said.
“There was a lot of ammunition going off,” he said. “We stayed back from the property a little bit and put water on it from a distance.”
In addition to the Felton company, crews from Magnolia, Camden-Wyoming and Harrington were called upon to contain and extinguish the fire, which was placed under control at 3:36 p.m. None of the four dozen firefighters present were injured, Moxley said.
With no fire hydrant nearby, firemen set up a shuttle service to bring water from the town fire station, approximately a mile away, he said. In all more than 57,000 gallons of water were used to extinguish the fire.
When the fire crews left, the two-story home, which dated to the 1820s, was little more than a smoking ruin. The front façade had collapsed, leaving interior rooms with their fire-scorched walls exposed. Between the two brick chimneys, the roof had fallen into the attic. A rear addition had apparently borne the brunt of the gas explosion; the roof, second floor and an exterior wall were little more than rubble.
Firefighters were able to protect the garage and two mobile homes parked in the driveway.
The eastern side of the home, its original wood and mortar wall almost stripped bare, was its least-damaged side, but even that appears to be beyond salvaging.
“It’s a total loss,” said Barbara Weingard, who owns the property with her husband, Robert Donavan.
Donavan was taken to Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital to be treated for smoke inhalation, which he suffered while trying to rescue the couple’s three dogs.
“He opened the door and immediately smelled gas,” Weingard said. “As soon as he opened the door, it blew the whole right side of the house off.”
Page 2 of 2 - In addition to the home, Weingard said the couple lost a large collection of antiques.
“But those are just material things,” she said. “For us, the worst thing was losing the animals.”
Fire marshals found the remains of the couple’s dogs, including a setter and a rescued Labrador inside the home during their investigation.
Donavan was the only person to sustain any injuries; a 13-year-old grandson and a guest also escaped harm.
Weingard said she and Donavan used their retirement funds to buy the house in 2011, obtaining it via a sheriff’s sale.
Although it had been home to many during its existence – including a past Felton fire chief – the home’s most notable resident was the late Kent County Clerk of the Peace, Edie Hemphill.
Hemphill, who died in 2004, had married more than 7,000 couples during her quarter-century in office. She also was a force in local politics, often using the antiques-packed home as a base for Democratic politicians on election nights. But she also was well regarded on the other side of the aisle and had many friends in both parties.
“I knew Edie,” Weingard said. “She was just a wonderful person.”
“I always knew this was a historic property,” Weingard said of the home. “I’m from this area and I always had loved it. I’m told the kitchen was her favorite room, and when we bought it, we didn’t want to change anything.”
The fire exposed the excellent craftsmanship that had gone into the house almost 200 years ago, Weingard said, adding she was amazed how after so much time had passed the heavy main beams still were held together with wooden pegs, not nails.
“You can’t imagine the workmanship that was put into this,” she said. “It went together like a puzzle.”
Bullock said his office had declared the fire accidental in nature, caused when a standing pilot light in a home appliance ignited the propane gas.
Damage was estimated at $200,000, he said.