• Barre fire kills five
     | December 18,2005

    BARRE – A fast-moving fire killed a woman and four children here early Saturday morning.

    Kimberly Stoltz Foster, 30, her daughter, Tory, 12, her son, Brett, 9, and her stepdaughters, Christa Foster, 8, and Mikayla Foster, 6, were killed after the fire broke out in their second-story Eastern Avenue apartment.

    Art Foster, 25, the father of Christa and Mikayla and the stepfather of Tory and Brett, was badly burned and being treated for critical injuries Saturday at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington.

    "What we've come to know is this horrible tragedy has taken the lives of five members of one family," Barre City Police Chief Trevor Whipple said at a midday press conference in city hall.

    A family friend, Jeremy Smith, 26, who was staying with the family, jumped out a second-story window to escape the fire. His injuries were not life threatening, according to Whipple.

    The mother was dead at the scene, and emergency workers tried to resuscitate the children as they were brought to Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin. They died there shortly afterward.

    The tragedy struck this city of 9,300 just seven months after three Barre children drowned in the cold waters of the Jail Branch of the Winooski River.

    "It's just almost too much to bear for our sweet city," Mayor Peter Anthony said at the conference.

    Kimberly Stoltz Foster and Art Foster were married in October and moved to Eastern Avenue last summer. The Stoltz children were fifth- and sixth-graders at Barre City Elementary School. The Foster children were enrolled at Barre Town Elementary School.

    Officials said the fire does not appear to have been suspicious, but it is being investigated by Vermont State Police and fire code enforcement officers. Two firefighters suffered injuries from exhaustion. The last fatal fire in the Granite City occurred in the 1980s, Whipple said.

    Emergency workers received the 911 dispatch to the fire shortly before 6 a.m. Saturday morning. They arrived in clear, mid-20-degree weather to find the gray, two-story duplex in flames. They checked out the first floor and found no one inside.

    "What was found on the second floor was an intense fire. … Officers were not able to enter due to the intense heat," Whipple said.

    Trapped upstairs were Kimberly Stoltz Foster and Art Foster, and her two children, who all lived in the apartment, and Foster's children, who lived in neighboring Barre Town with their mother, Karen Pelletier. They were visiting for the weekend, along with Smith.

    Chris Whitcher, who lives across the street, said he ran over to the house and watched as a fire truck arrived, and tried to help at the scene. He said the firefighters struggled to get water from the truck and had difficulty finding a hydrant.

    South Burlington Fire Chief Doug Brent, a former chief of the Barre department who helped with the rescue effort, said he hadn't heard about any trouble at the start of the rescue effort. Whipple said the first truck was on the scene within a few minutes of the 911 call.

    Firefighters from Montpelier, East Montpelier, Williamstown, Berlin and Barre Town soon joined in the battle. Barre Town and Northfield emergency medical personnel were on the scene as well. But rescue efforts proved futile for five of the seven inside the burning house.

    The bottom floor of the house was unoccupied at the time of the fire. The woman who rents the space lives in Massachusetts and only uses the house about once a month, when she is here for work as a professor at Vermont College in Montpelier, according to the building's owners, Terry and Laurie Greenwood. The two watched Saturday morning as firefighters put out remaining hot spots.

    Next-door neighbor Sharon Jacobs, who opened her house to rescue workers for bathroom breaks, said she awoke to the sound of the sirens.

    "I watched from my back porch as they took someone out the back window," she said. "Later on the hearse came. That was devastating to watch. The firefighters got all lined up. It was heartbreaking to see the look on their faces as well. Then the hardest thing was watching them take all those wrapped presents out."

    Jacobs works as a special education teacher at Barre City Elementary and Middle School, and said she saw the children playing outside just Friday.

    "It's, like, awful. A terrible, terrible tragedy," Jacobs said.

    Barre resident Kelli Bullard walked up the Eastern Street sidewalk to watch the firefighters late Saturday morning as the ashes smoldered.

    "I'm just trying to think of my kids, just knowing that four kids died out of that, a week before Christmas? You know, I was sitting in the car with my kids, and I heard it over the radio and it just put me in tears almost," Bullard said.

    Brent said the incident was hitting rescue workers hard – apparent from the solemn, bewildered expressions on their soot-covered faces. Many of them also covered the drowning incident in May, and for those with young children who might have been classmates of the victims, watching the tragedy unfold was especially difficult, Brent said. On top of that, knowing that their chief is related to the victims made the fatal fire very emotional.

    "It's not often that five people die in a house fire in the state of Vermont," Brent said.

    Brent served as the spokesman at the press conference because Barre Chief Peter John is related to Art Foster. His wife, Kathy, is Foster's aunt.

    Autopsies will be performed as part of the investigation.

    The two elementary schools plan to have counselors and other resources available for students and community members beginning at 9 a.m. Monday.

    Barre City school teachers have been on strike over contract negotiations for more than a week, throwing into question where Barre City Elementary and Middle School children would go to find support. School officials said the school would open despite the walkout and counselors and some teachers would be in to help the children deal with the tragedy. Barre Education Association president Ed Stout said the union would cancel their picketing and leafleting efforts today and Monday.

    On Monday, it will be an all-too-familiar scene at Barre City Elementary and Middle School. It was only in May when children, teachers and administrators gathered to mourn the drowning deaths of Allison Hansen and Joshua and Justin Nutbrown. And two years ago on Dec. 17, kindergartner Brandon Bernier died in a bus accident.

    "Obviously, we're all devastated in the city of Barre," Anthony said. "This is the second time in 2005 that the emergency services and myself have had to conduct a press conference with multiple deaths, in both cases involving children. … The struggle at that time was, and I think remains to be, that not only the immediate family but friends of the children and the adults are given all the care and love that the community can summon at this particular time."

    "At least we're near the end of the year, and cross your fingers, nothing worse can happen. But it's so difficult because this is such a contrast. Down the street at Depot Square, Santa is taking wishes and the emergency services are emptying the apartment of Christmas presents. It's just almost too much to bear for our sweet city," Anthony said.

    "I just hope people … will do everything they can for those folks who are touched by this," he said. "As Doug Brent remarked, this reaches in to our own department because of the relationship of the victims and the chief and his wife, Kathy. Our prayers are with them obviously.

    "But this will be one of those Christmases that obviously have some deep emotional scars attached to it."

    Contact Sky Barsch at sky.barsch@timesargus.com or 223-3335.

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