'I can't get to them': Dispatcher recounts call from Ozarks fire that killed 5 kids

Before five children were confirmed dead in a fire at an Ozarks home Wednesday morning, a firefighter’s voice came over the radio.

“There’s people trapped and I can’t get to them,” the firefighter said, according to a dispatcher who worked the incident. The dispatcher added the man’s voice was breaking with emotion. “I’m at a window, can’t get it open. There’s a mother and a baby.”

The dispatcher, Lori Embry, spoke to The Star by phone Wednesday afternoon.

She’s been a dispatcher for about three years at the Laclede County Sheriff’s Office and helped emergency personnel organize their response to the burning home in Lebanon, Mo., which is about 45 miles northeast of Springfield.

It was the first incident she’s worked that resulted in the deaths of children, who ranged in age from 6 months to 5 years.

“That was the most heart-wrenching experience I’ve ever had to deal with,” Embry said.

Chase Schrecengost, 17, lives next door and saw the horror unfold.

A firefighter entered the home but was turned back by the flames and smoke, said a witness, Chase Schrecengost. Max Londberg jlondberg@kcstar.com

He watched as a woman was pulled from the home and saw a man arrive later, screaming for his wife and children.

"It was horrifying to see," said Schrecengost. "I'm shocked about the whole thing."

After pulling the woman from the home, the firefighter heard a baby’s cry, Schrecengost heard an onlooker say. The teen watched as the firefighter went into the home through a window, only to come back out moments later, choking.

“He tried to jump in and save it, but he couldn’t, too much smoke,” Schrecengost said. “He couldn’t breathe in there.”

Embry, 24, said multiple neighbors called at about 9 a.m. to report a mobile home ablaze in the 1100 block of Ivey Lane.

The neighbors, along with troopers from the Missouri Highway Patrol and local first responders, all attempted to rescue the children, but the blaze beat them back, Lebanon Fire Chief Sam Schneider said.

The firefighter whose voice came over the radio was the first on the scene. He arrived in his personal vehicle about 9:04 a.m., Embry said. He was there quickly because he was in the area on another call.

About five minutes later, two fire engines arrived.

After the fire was extinguished, responders entered the home, finding all the children.

A woman was able to escape but suffered burn injuries. She is the mother of two of the children who died, according to Kim Henry, a family friend.

The two children lived in the home with their mother and father, Henry said.

The other three children were the mother and father’s nephews.

After five children were killed in a fire at a Lebanon, Mo., home, neighbors brought flowers and other items to memorialize them. Max Londberg jlondberg@kcstar.com

The father, Henry said, had worked an overnight shift. When he returned home, he saw the blaze.

“Neighbors said he was just standing there, crying,” Henry said, “saying, ‘My kids! My kids!’”

Embry is the niece of Deidra Willis, a dispatcher who worked a similar incident in December 1987, in which three children died in a fire.

That fire was also in a mobile home, in the same neighborhood as Wednesday’s incident, and a mother escaped then also, Willis said.

Wednesday’s fire “brought back a flood of memories,” and she said she became physically ill thinking of the lives lost again.

“A fire gets started in one of those mobile homes … and it just takes minutes for it to erupt in an entire trailer,” she added, echoing a warning relayed by Schneider earlier Wednesday to media.

Fred Savage, now a fire chief for the nearby Conway Fire Department, was a firefighter at the 1987 fire.

In that instance, no smoke detectors were present in the home.

It’s unclear whether there were detectors at the home that burned Wednesday.

The most important thing “when you live in a trailer is smoke detectors, smoke detectors, smoke detectors,” Savage said.

“It truly can be the difference between life and multiple deaths.”

The five children’s deaths marked nine deaths in the small city of about 15,000 in 24 hours, according to Embry.

A baby died of natural causes, she said. The baby’s grandfather then died in a wreck. Another person died of natural causes. And a 57-year-old man was shot to death.

“It’s absolute craziness,” Embry said.