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Fire claims base house, inspires teamwork, charity at Sheppard

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Tonnette Thompson
  • 82nd Training Wing, Public Affairs
The first thing Senior Airman Heath Conley noticed was the smoke.

The 82nd Security Forces Squadron patrolman was having a routine graveyard shift at the front gate, performing anti-terrorism measures on random cars, the bomb and drug-sniffing dog at his feet.

Then from the corner of his eye, he saw grayish clouds quickly filling the midnight air above the visitor's center, funneling down to a bright orange, flickering glow. It could only mean one thing.

The only thing Airman Conley didn't know for sure was the exact origin ... but the plumes of smoke seemed to hover over Sheppard's own Wherry Housing.

Immediately he radioed fellow 82nd SFS patrolman Staff Sgt. Dominic Macias and reported the situation. Within moments, two separate police cars, their sirens screaming, were speeding off in opposite directions: Airman Conley heading for Wherry Housing, while Sergeant Macias went off-base in the direction of the smoke.

"As soon as I got to the perimeter I could see the fire was on the installation," Sergeant Macias said. "I saw the flames shooting up above the trees."

Indeed, the fire was on Sheppard property, and the worse possible scenario greeted Airman Conley as he drove through the enclosed suburban community: a terrible blaze was devouring one of the small homes. The entire right side had already been incinerated beyond all hope, and the flames were moving quickly to envelop the rest of the structure -- and anyone inside.

Sergeant Macias was already racing toward Wherry when Airman Conley radioed the exact address: 103 Childress Street. The sergeant pulled up only seconds after Airman Conley arrived on-scene. Together, the two rushed right up to the burning house and began banging on the front and back doors, yelling at the tops of their lungs for a response.

They listened for a scream, a call for help, anything ... but all they heard were the crackling flames and the sounds of a house falling apart under the scorching siege.

Sergeant Macias and Airman Conley quickly determined that the house was unoccupied. From there, they set about warning those in the adjacent houses with the same urgent banging and yelling ... and got the same silent response.

Soon they noticed the lack of human activity in the area. There were no exclamations of fear, no one running up to offer assistance. No one was even watching from a window, or stepping outside to witness the spectacle.

"All the houses were empty," Sergeant Macias said. "We didn't find out until later that all the houses in that area had already been cleared."

When the base firemen showed up mere minutes later, the entire house was ablaze, the flames engulfing the roof and only inches away from the low-hanging trees.

As members of the 82nd Medical Group, 82nd Civil Engineer Squadron, GMH Military Housing and the Wichita Falls Fire Department converged on the small suburban pyre, they very quickly formed a cohesive unit with one focus, one goal: dousing the fire.

Utilities personnel from 82nd CES cut off the gas and electricity while security forces removed a lawn mower and propane grill from the area, cutting off any possible additional sources of fuel. Paramedics set up a triage and re-constitution area, and handed out water and ice packs to the responders. The firefighters, military and civilian, from on-base and off-base, worked as one to fight the blaze.

"It took us half an hour to put it out," said David Mounsey, assistant chief for fire prevention, 82nd CES. "The trees didn't catch, but they weren't our first concern; the exposed houses were the biggest threat for the fire spreading."

Responders wore several hats while working together to eliminate that threat. When not doing their primary jobs, paramedics and security forces personnel stood side by side with the firemen hauling the fire hoses toward the hydrants, even dragging the 4-inch supply lines 600 feet uphill.

"People just pitched in wherever needed, it didn't matter. All that mattered was getting that fire put out," Chief Mounsey said.

The teamwork paid off: sometime after 1 a.m., approximately 40 minutes after Airman Conley first noticed the smoke, the potentially deadly inferno was reduced to a scorched, smoldering infrastructure, the homes on either side of it unharmed.

None of the responders were injured.

Lt. Col. Curt Van De Walle, deputy commander of the 82nd Mission Support Group, had nothing but praise for those who provided emergency response and support operations.

"Everybody worked together to set up a seamless operation that worked extremely well. They truly went above and beyond," he said

The cause of the incident is still under investigation, although Chief Mounsey did reveal that the fire originated in the house's spare room.

The reason for the houses' desertion can be linked to housing privatization. The outdated Wherry Housing has been marked for demolition to make room for new, more modern homes. Some of the old homes have already been bulldozed, and most of the Sheppard personnel who once lived in Wherry have already been moved elsewhere.

Staff Sgt. Michael Shonyo, 82nd Communications Squadron, was likely asleep at his new address in Capehart Housing, his pregnant wife and two children nearby, when his phone rang at 1:30 a.m.

"It was their first night there," said Roylene Quintero, community manager of GMH, who called Sergeant Shonyo from the scene.

The notification that the house they occupied only hours before had burned to the ground while they were safely ensconced in their new home should have brought only relief, untainted by any grief or loss.

Unfortunately the family's belongings, all packed and ready for moving into their new home that very morning, were still stored in the ill-fated Wherry house.

"He was in shock," said Ms. Quintero, relaying Sergeant Shonyo's reaction as she escorted him to the grisly site of his former home. "They went into Capehart with some futons to sleep on and the clothes on their backs, and now that's all they have."

In response to this devastating event, 82nd CS organized a donation drive for the Shonyo family.

"It's been really impressive. It's a large community, but when something like this happens it just brings everyone together," said Staff Sgt. Jeremy Akerson, project manager for 82nd CS and point of contact for the drive.
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