SEATTLE – Three children of a Washington state lobbyist died in a house fire early Friday after thick smoke and flames blocked their mother from reaching the upstairs bedrooms where they were sleeping, authorities said.
The woman was on the bottom floor of the split-level home in the city of Centralia, about 90 miles south of Seattle, when the fire woke her a little before 1 a.m., police and fire officials said. The flames had started above her, in the living room near the front door, and she was unable to make it up the stairs to the top level where the school-age children slept in three separate bedrooms.
"She just said it was impossible to get through the smoke and flames that was between her and her kids," said police Sgt. Carl Buster.
A police officer, Phillip Weismiller, 36, and two other first responders climbed onto the roof and tried to break a window to save the children, but they too were held back by the intense heat, Police Chief Carl Nielsen told a news conference. Weismiller, a three-year veteran of the department who previously served in the military, suffered a serious injury to his hand and was treated and released from a hospital.
Weismiller's wife, Norma, told The Chronicle newspaper of Centralia that two of his fingers were nearly severed, but that it appeared they would heal.
"He is a strong man ... but situations like this are hard for anyone involved," she said. "He did all he could do, and he knows that. But he is sad that he couldn't save the kids."
The mother escaped and had not reported any injuries.
No one else was in the house, and there were no indications of foul play, Buster said. Investigators said the cause of the blaze was not apparent, but they pinpointed where it started by the burn patterns it left.
The living room was large and open, providing the flames with plenty of oxygen — a problem that was compounded when the big windows "came out" under the stress of the fire, said Riverside Fire Authority Chief Michael Kytta. The stairwell leading up to the children's rooms "acted as if it were a chimney," he said.
Authorities did not immediately identify the family, but colleagues of Brad Tower, a lobbyist in the state capital since 2000, said he is the father of the children. Centralia schools superintendent Mark Davalos said the children were in the second, fourth and sixth grades.
The news led to an outpouring of support, with both houses of the Legislature holding moments of silence and praying for the family. Lt. Gov. Brad Owen and several lawmakers addressed the tragedy.
"It's a very difficult time," Owen said before asking the Senate to stand for a moment of silence. "One of our family members is in the greatest pain a person could ever have."
Tower's colleagues wrote in an email Friday that the family requested privacy.
"I can't even guess what the sorrow is for a loss times three," Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said. "My thoughts, my prayers to the entire Tower family goes out today."
Tower has represented the state's community bankers, its dental association and the Washington Christmas Tree Growers.