Despite three attempts by fireman to enter his burning house to rescue him, a vigorous 92-year-old northeast Mississippi man died Saturday night in a house fire.
The victim was James Lee Staten of the North Haven community north of New Albany in Union County..
An official cause of death is pending autopsy results, but Union County Medical Examiner-Investigator Pam Boman said fire and resulting smoke was likely the cause.
The fire occurred about 9:30 p.m. at Staten’s home at 1068 County Road 139.
Staten’s grandson, Shane Staten, who works for Union County, lives next door. “I heard a big boom and ran out the door,” he said. “Fire was already coming out of the upstairs windows.”
He said he ran to the back door but found it locked and he did not have his key with him.
“I ran around to his bedroom window and broke it with my hand and was going in after him but the smoke was so bad I couldn’t see,” he said.
By this time Staten’s neighbor, sheriff’s deputy and firefighter Chris Whiteside arrived and asked if anybody was inside. “I told him and he put on his suit and went in but he felt all around bedroom and couldn’t find him,” Staten said.
When other firefighters arrived they eventually found the man in a bathroom with his back against the door, the grandson said, apparently overcome by smoke.
Although 92, Staten was in uncommonly good health for his age. In fact, his most serious limitation was that his arm had been in a sling. Teresa Cummings, who is a nurse but describes herself as more of a granddaughter (“He walked me down the aisle when I was married and said I was a granddaughter he never had.”), has been helping care for Staten.
Cummings said that a horse Mr. Staten was riding recently rolled over on him, breaking his shoulder and collarbone.
“He was very self-sufficient,” she added. “He rode horses and rode his four-wheeler all around,” she said.
“He carried a cane but he was always forgetting it and losing it because he didn’t need it to walk,” the grandson said.
Staten served in the US military for 10 years after World War II, working in the Pentagon and eventually being responsible for preparing papers that went to the President, said his family.
After returning home to Northeast Mississippi from military service, he drove a truck for Snap-on Tools for several years in addition to taking care of his farm. His wife of 65 years, Annie Elizabeth Staten, who worked at Rogers Insurance for many years, died in 2018.
Firefighters from North Haven, Myrtle, Northeast, and New Albany Rescue responded, having to ferry tanker loads of water up the narrow dead-end county road.
“North Haven and New Albany Firefighters arrived ahead of trucks and verified entrapment in the home,” New Albany Fire Chief Mark Whiteside said. “Firefighters performed a tactic called V-E-I-S (make entry, make sure doors are shut, search for victim) to rescue the trapped victim.”
Crew members made entry through a window and did a fast search of the room.
“This was done a second time, more thoroughly, and then they made a third search, this time with the fire hose team ahead of them and working their way deeper into the home,” Whiteside said.
“The victim was located and brought back out through the same window the firefighters entered. All this was done in a matter of minutes.”
Once outside, lifesaving efforts were started and the patient was turned over to EMS from Baptist Memorial Union County.
“This is a rescue tactic that we train and practice over and over so that it is a methodical and systematic procedure,” Whiteside said.
The fire was brought under control in about three hours, and crews stayed on scene just over six hours to make sure the fire was extinguished.
“It was a very coordinated group effort, but the outcome was not what we had hoped for,” Whiteside said. In addition to Mr. Staten’s death, the home is a total loss.
No one else was seriously injured in the blaze although several firefighters did sustain some minor injuries.
Some equipment has been removed from service for inspection for damage in New Albany, North Haven has some damaged fire hose, and Myrtle has a tanker truck out of service after this incident, Whiteside said.
The cause of the fire is under investigation at this time, he said. Investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s office along with county and city investigators will return to the scene the first part of the week.
The home was heated by a wood heater in a separate shed away from the house that piped heat to the home by an underground system. “Every night at 9 o’clock, I go fill up the firebox and last night I didn’t notice any smoke or anything,” the grandson said. The fire must have started within the next 30 minutes.
“It is not our place to decide who survives and who doesn’t,” said Whiteside. “It is our responsibility to give everyone a fighting chance, and that is what this crew did.
“This time did not end as we hoped and trained for, but this group of firefighters did everything humanly possible, and pushed the limits of their training, equipment and bodies to the furthest part of its limits.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”
Funeral arrangements are incomplete but family members said Glenfield Funeral Home will be in charge. Visitation and services will be at nearby Ebenezer Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Although described as a staunch Baptist, Staten has faithfully attended Ebenezer where his wife and several of her family members are buried, they said.
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