When Richard Wentz of Strawberry glanced out his window on Squirrel Run Friday night, he thought a fog was rolling in. But when he walked outside, he smelled trouble.
"I looked out the window and it looked smoky or cloudy," he said. "I said to (my wife), Cynthia, "Is it foggy or is our window dirty? When I went outside, I could smell the smoke. I saw smoke coming from the eves at (Honor Booker's) place and called 911."
His wife, Cynthia, went next door to see if their 69-year-old neighbor, Booker, was home. She wasn't, but her three pet cats were. Cynthia noticed the front door was very hot and knew not to open it.
"Things took off from there," her husband said.
Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Paul Coe was one of the first to arrive at the smoldering house. He said later that he immediately noticed the telltale signs of a potential backfire, which could be caused by firefighters busting open a door and allowing a sudden rush of oxygen to enflame the starving fire.
Using cross ventilation to open the house safely, P-S Fire Lt. Mike Brandt, Reserve Captain Mike Brandt and engineer Ken Slayman entered the smoke-darkened home.
Slayman climbed up a narrow spiral staircase to the second floor and opened another window, while firefighter Al Sherman poured about 50 gallons of water on a small fire that was burning between a new gas stove and the stairwell which also led to the basement.
A five-member team from the Payson Fire Department, led by Jimmy Rasmussen, joined the local crew. Taking shifts, the nine firefighters searched the house for the widow's three cats.
Booker drove to the Valley Friday morning and planned to return home Sunday evening. She left her pets with self-feeders and waterers, and access to a cat door, her daughter Ilene Mote said.
Mote watched as firefighters in bulky uniforms shuffled in and out of her mother's home.
Searching through the smoke, firefighters brought out the cats one by one.
They found 9-year-old Messner in the basement first. Overwhelmed by smoke, the tomcat barely responded at first. Lt. Don Smith fitted a human oxygen mask over the cat's face and got some reaction. The cat lapsed into a couple of seizures, but finally stabilized.
"He gave us a few scares," Smith said.
Booker's 13-year-old cat Missy and 4-month-old kitten "T" weren't as lucky.
Veterinarian Sandra Snyder treated Messner late Friday night, and kept him over the weekend to guard against complications.
"The very best thing was to give him oxygen," she said. That is the key with any smoke inhalation. It is really the only thing that can be done out there."
Once the smoke cleared, fire investigators Mark Boyce, John Varljen and John Wisener assessed the damage.
Inside, the team found a melted microwave, TV and stereo, charred beams, and a melted stair rail. Smoke and heat had permeated every nook and cranny of the home, melting shower curtains, light fixtures and Booker's lifelong collection of treasures.
"It looks like the photo albums are intact," Wisener said as he picked through the debris while trying to figure out what started the fire.
The heat patterns inside the house indicate that the temperature rose to above 2,000 degrees, Chief Coe said.
Although investigators have been unable to positively identify the cause of the fire, they suspect it was an electrical malfunction. Investigators found signs of wire overheating, which could have been caused by a break in a wire or a short, Coe said Monday.
News of the fire has been hard on the 69-year-old owner.
"She did have a heart episode," Mote said. Booker was in the hospital until Sunday and is now staying with her daughter in Strawberry. Booker's home has been condemned. She is currently trying to salvage whatever mementos and clothing she can from the blackened building that used to be her home.
On Monday, Messner was allowed to return to his owner. He's a bit confused, Mote said, but is already showing signs of his old self. "He's rubbing up against me looking for loving."