Fatal Lake Onota Village fire leaves a community 'devastated'
PITTSFIELD — Herika Carvalho-Galusha said she awoke to the sound of screams early Saturday morning.
The fire from her neighbor's trailer crackled loudly, blazing red in between her window shades.
Galusha put her shoes on and rushed outside, where she found her neighbor "screaming at the top of her lungs" for her children. She said the grieving mother was so traumatized she struggled to dial 911.
Galusha said her instincts drove her to the front door of the fire-filled home to see if she could be any help, but a quick glance through the door told her there was no going in. In the face of that kind of fire, she said, "you are nothing."
"It's something you never forget," she said.
The early morning blaze claimed the lives of Austin Grzelak, 25, and twin 6-year-old boys, Kasper and Sylas Stone. Either a home candle or smoking materials caused the fire at the Lake Onota Village, according to the Berkshire District Attorney's Office.
On Monday, some neighbors recounted the weekend's horrors. Others occupied themselves by trying to catch the family's two cats, who escaped the blaze.
The twins' 12-year-old sister survived the fire, one neighbor said as he scurried between houses in an attempt to catch one of the felines. The cats were hers, he said, and "she's lost enough."
While the girl didn't require medical treatment, her mother remains in the hospital for injuries that were not life-threatening, officials said.
Blackened tufts of insulation surrounded the charred frame of the home on Monday. A warped, melted door sat askew beside what remained of the entrance.
Fresh flowers and stuffed animals perched on the front steps.
Chris Kelley, who lives next door to the destroyed home, said he's grateful for the shades shielding it from view.
Kelley's memory of the fire came in pieces, beginning with the heat he felt on his ear as he moved toward the screaming mother.
"She was a wreck," he said. "She called my name."
But the house went up in flames so fast — "so fast it wasn't funny" — that there was little that anyone could do.
"She just went across the street and screamed her heart out," he said.
Mary Leoncini, who lives with Kelley, said she called 911 when she heard the screams and saw the blaze. Then she woke up Kelley in case the fire moved for their home.
"All she had was a sheet on her," Leoncini said of the mother, noting burns on her arm. "She was shaking she didn't want to go in the ambulance."
She said the mother also made repeated mentions of a candle in the home. The neighbors said the 12-year-old girl escaped the fire through a window.
"When does this stop?" Kelley asked, showing his shaking right hand. With his left, he puffed a cigar.
Kelley said the boys were rambunctious and he would sometimes yell at them to quiet down.
"Now I wish they were here so I could scream at `em again," he said.
Krystal Carroll, 26, of Pittsfield, said Grzelak didn't live in the home, but was there that night to hang out with the twins' mother, Krystal Parody.
Carroll, a close family friend who refers to Grzelak as an honorary brother, said she believes he did everything he could to help the children get out safely.
"He had the biggest heart of anyone I knew," she said. "He'd give the shirt off his back to anyone who needed it."
Grzelak was a Taconic High School graduate and worked as a tire technician at City Tire, she said. He was good with cars, and plowing jeeps and four-wheelers through mud was a favorite pastime. She said he loved going four-wheeling with family and playing with his dog, Marley.
"That boy loved nothing more than to go play in some mud," she said.
The fire made quick work of the mobile home, neighbors said.
Tom Sammons, deputy chief of the Pittsfield Fire Department, said it's common knowledge in his line of work that fire spreads quickly in a mobile home. He said firefighters made a valiant effort to get within the melting walls.
"It was near flashover conditions when they arrived," he said, referring to the point at which fire overwhelmed the structure.
He said that because of the severe damage to the home he's unclear as to whether or not it had any smoke detectors. In any case, he said the devices are an essential public safety tool.
"It's imperative for people to have working smoke detectors," he said.
Galusha's home was also damaged in the fire, but she said the melted siding is nothing compared with the mother's loss.
She said she's had a hard time sleeping since the fire, and she's come to realize how fragile life can be.
"I'm devastated," Galusha said. "It's awful."
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.
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