Last Tuesday, Feb. 14, Millville Volunteer Fire Company member Elaine Downing was driving into work a little after 6 in the morning when she passed by Elva Bennett’s residence on Atlantic Avenue.
“I saw her front window open, and I knew something was wrong because she never has those front windows open,” recalled Downing. “So I turned around to get a better look, to see if something was wrong.”
While headed back to the residence, Downing called in to the MVFC to reach past-chief Roger Hitchens, a friend of Bennett’s.
“I figured if something was wrong, she would feel more comfortable having both us coming in, rather than just having me coming in.”
“She called saying, ‘I got something up here. I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t look right,’” added Hitchens, who grabbed past-chief Ed Hammond and current president Greg Tietmeyer to go to Bennett’s home when he got Downing’s call.
“I didn’t know what we were going to go look at. I just thought we were going to help somebody do something,” said Hammond.
While the three men were on route, Downing was calling 911, having spotted smoke coming from the residence.
“I could see black smoke coming out of the dwelling from one of the windows in front,” said Tietmeyer, who arrived minutes later with Hitchens and Hammond.
“We looked at we could see – the woman standing in the window. By then smoke was pouring out of the house,” added Hitchens.
Hammond and Hitchens were able to rescue Bennett from her home and took her to Downing, who was a registered EMT for more than 15 years.
“I give her all the credit in the world,” said Hitchens of Downing for spotting that there was something wrong at the house.
“She kept calling me her angel that day, because I got to her first,” said Downing of Bennett. “I called 911 and put her in my car and just took care of her until more authorities got there. My main concern was just getting clean, furnished air into her lungs, because I didn’t know how much smoke she had taken in.”
Bennett was also concerned for her two dogs, who were still in her home at that point.
“She was screaming and hollering about her dogs — she had two dogs inside,” said Hammond. “We hollered for one of the dogs, and I finally got one of the dogs and took him back to the car. Then there was another dog that her son got out, so we got both dogs out. Luckily, I think the dogs probably woke her up, and that is probably what saved her life.”
“You’d thought we’d given her a million dollars when she saw her dogs,” added Downing.
The Bethany Beach and Roxana volunteer fire companies also responded to the scene, along with the MVFC. Bennett was transported to Beebe Medical Center for treatment of smoke inhalation.
“Millville, Bethany and Roxanna did an exceptional job — quick and very professional,” said Bennett’s son Franklin. “She’s doing well,” he added of his mother. “She was very fortunate.”
According to the Office of the State Fire Marshal, the house fire – with damages estimated at $8,500 – originated in the home’s kitchen, caused by an unattended candle that ignited combustible materials.
Bob Powell, the MVFC’s public information officer, said it was also determined that Bennett’s house was not equipped with working smoke detectors.
“When people are asleep, you won’t necessarily smell smoke. Some people think they will, but you won’t. Then it overcomes the individual,” he explained. “Most of the time, they die from the smoke inhalation or the gases that are in the fire.
“That’s why it’s important to have working smoke detectors, so you get that early warning as soon as smoke is detected, so you can get out of the dwelling.”
Powell said that, at a minimum, at least one working smoke detector should be located on each floor of a home, with one also outside of each sleeping area. He added that the detectors should be tested and have their batteries changed every six months.
Tietmeyer said he estimates that, of the house fires within the state, 30 to 40 percent of the homes involved do not have working smoke detectors or, in some cases, any smoke detectors at all.
“I’ve been involved with fire prevention for a long, long time,” Tietmeyer noted. “My point of emphasis is in the availability and necessity of having working smoke detectors – in our fire district, especially, but throughout the county and state.
“In my opinion,” he said, “there is no excuse – period – for anyone not to have a working smoke detector, with the availability of the detectors with the Wake Up Delaware program. Every firehouse in the county has free detectors and batteries in their stations 24-7.”
He added that the free smoke detectors are available to anyone, no matter their economic status or where they reside.
“My main concern is for the community to understand that we have these things and they’re there for the taking,” he said. “We have them available, they’re free and we even have guys who will go out and install them if someone is incapacitated or handicapped. If someone is unable to install them or change the batteries, we’ll do it.”
Powell said that Hitchens, Downing, Hammond and Tietmeyer will all be nominated at the county and state level for awards for their rescue of Bennett.
“It is very important to have smoke detectors that are working,” added Hammond. “And also, if you’re riding by and see something obvious, or if something doesn’t look right, call 911.”
“I wish she had working smoke detectors. That is something that cannot be stressed enough,” said Downing.
“The most important thing,” said Tietmeyer, “is we’re very grateful that Mrs. Bennett survived this whole ordeal.”
The Millville Volunteer Fire Company is located at 35554 Atlantic Avenue (Route 26) in Millville. For more information, or to get a free smoke detector, call (302) 539-7557.