Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Man ran into burning home to save friend


Luke Marquardt

Haines resident Luke Marquardt ran into his family's burning home to save a friend's life during an early morning fire at 26 Mile Haines Highway on Feb. 14.

Looking at the flaming, smoking building, Marquardt said he considered in a split-second the most important fire safety rule children learn: Never go back into a burning building.

"Running into a burning house is terrifying," he said. "Running into a burning house totally blind to look for someone when you have no idea where they are is insane," he said.

Marquardt, 33, and mother Geri Marquardt, 60, had escaped into the yard after discovering the smoke and flames around 1 a.m., but Geri's friend Larry Drake, 56, had fallen behind. Drake had stopped to put on his boots and pants, not realizing he was in peril.

Geri initially hadn't grasped the danger, either. "Luke ran upstairs in the middle of the night. I was in a deep sleep and I heard him go, 'Get up! Get up! The house is on fire!' I opened my eyes and said, 'No, it isn't,' because I couldn't see it," she said.

The fire is believed to have started in the basement and as Luke was staying in a downstairs bedroom, he was the first to see flames. He ran upstairs to rouse Drake and his mom, but it was only after Geri and Luke made it out of the house that they realized Drake wasn't behind them.

Geri looked up at the home that she started building with her family in 1992. Black smoke billowed from inside. "When I saw the flames, I thought Larry was gone," she said.

With Geri screaming hysterically – waking daughter Sara Marquardt and Nigel Duffy, who were living in a guest house on the property – Luke tried to decide what to do.

He said he imagined Drake burning alive. He asked himself if he could live knowing he let another human being die, and decided he couldn't.

Crawling into the house on all fours to avoid inhaling the superheated smoke, he blindly felt around for something to indicate Drake's presence. Amid the sounds of breaking glass and roaring flames, he heard a faint, monotone croak: "Help."

Drake was lying at the bottom of the staircase, suffering from smoke inhalation and burns to his head, back and hands. Luke grabbed Drake's foot and dragged him the 30 feet back toward the front door.

Safely outside the house, Drake was still breathing, but in ragged, broken gasps. His clothes were burned and falling off him. "I thought gloves were hanging from his hands in tatters," Luke said. "It wasn't until later that I realized it wasn't cloth, but his skin."

Sara called 911, and the group drove from the house at 26 Mile toward town, meeting the ambulance at 10 Mile. Drake was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where he received several skin grafts due to suffering burns to 19 percent of his body.

The fire razed the entire 2,400-square-foot building. "Every single thing, every single inch burned," Luke said. "Nothing survived but some crumbling pottery and a few cast iron pans. Even most of the copper pipes and steel burned to crumbling rust."

Fire marshal Bob Plumb – who did not return calls for comment – told the family the cause of the fire was likely improperly installed heat tape in the basement, Geri said.

Geri said she is contacting the company that installed the home's smoke detectors, as she suspects they were defective. "They didn't go off until the house was already on fire and the house was half-filled with smoke," she said.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, heat tape causes about 2,000 fires, 10 deaths and 100 injuries every year.

"Luke was the hero in this, really," Geri said. "He put himself in danger to save another's life and he came out of it. His hair was singed and that was all."

Haines Borough fireman Al Badgley this week said Luke had been lucky, but also was smart for staying low after entering the building.

"You shouldn't go into a burning building without extreme, extenuating circumstances. There's a lot of cases of people going back into buildings looking for someone who's already out of the building, and they end up dying. You're taking a big risk," Badgley said.

Toxic smoke can be as dangerous as heat in a burning building, Badgley said. "That can knock you unconscious before you realize that you're having any problems."

The cleanest air in a burning building is down by the floor, Badgley said. Besides staying low, a person in a burning building needs to have a plan for getting out by a direct route and a back-up route for exiting the building in the event the primary route is blocked, he said.

Luke and Geri said some of their artistic family's greatest losses from the fire came in the form of lost paintings and writings.

"I lament the loss of all the art I had done in my life, and all the paints and tools for making more," Luke said. "But my greatest loss was my vast collection of journals. I had been keeping journals for the last 16 years."

Though her possessions are gone, Geri said she is confident her family will rebound from the loss. "I'm thankful that my children have such a good attitude about this and we're going to help each other through it."


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