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A father's desperate attempt to keep flames from spreading prevented him from getting back inside his Hamburg home Thursday night to rescue his wife and children from the oxygen-fueled inferno, police say.

James Carney ran outside with curtains that caught fire, but by the time he turned back to help his family, the quick moving fire had engulfed the home on Niles Avenue, authorities say.

As he pulled the curtains outside, his wife, Waun, rushed upstairs to save their teenage daughters. It appears she was able to push her 18-year-old daughter out a second-story window before she was overcome, police said.

Waun Carney, 43, and her children, James Jr., 3; Diane, 14; and Patricia, 16; all died of smoke inhalation.

"The fire starts the curtains on fire. He rips them off and runs outside with them to keep them from spreading to the rest of the house," said Hamburg Assistant Police Chief Carmen Kesner. "The mother, she runs upstairs. She's trying to get everybody out of the house."

Carney was trying to get back into the home, but could not, authorities said.

"He tried to help catch the girl when she jumped out the window," Kesner said.

Theresa, 18, was taken to Mercy Hospital for tests. Police said her injuries were not life-threatening.

The intense, rapidly spreading fire apparently was fueled by the oxygen that James Jr. needed to survive.

"We're looking at this as an accidental fire," said Detective Glenn Zawierucha. "The exact cause of ignition is still undetermined."

Carney, a stay-at-home father, doted on his son, who had had medical problems since birth, neighbors said, although they were not clear about the exact medical condition of the son.

"He was full-time with that baby. He sat up all night long," said Kim Wiser, who lives next to the Carney house.

Jimmy's crib, covered with an oxygen tent, was 10 to 12 feet from a gravity fed gas furnace in the living room, police said, and a 70-pound liquid oxygen reservoir provided a constant flow into the hospital crib. A 40-pound reserve oxygen cylinder was on the front porch, and there were two eight-pound portable units inside the house, the detective added.

"The oxygen was flowing. He was in a crib with an oxygen tent at the time," Zawierucha said. "We don't believe it was in the exact origin we were looking at, but with oxygen flowing in the residence, it accelerated quite rapidly and the fire spread was quite rapid and intense."

He said police do not believe there was an explosion as was first reported to authorities.

The tragedy touched not only the family and neighbors on Niles Avenue, but firefighters and police, some of whom are receiving counseling, and the Orchard Park School District where Diane and Patricia attended school.

Employees and customers at Jubilee Supermarket on Lake Avenue in Blasdell, where Mrs. Carney had worked, also mourned the loss.

As an Orchard Park school bus came down Niles Avenue Friday morning, it slowed in front of the house at 3556 Niles, almost as a gentle nod of respect to the two girls who had taken the bus the day before.

"Two sweet little girls," said next-door neighbor Bill Wiser. "Oh God, the school bus. I used to see them get on the bus."

Friday was to be a big day for Diane

Friday was going to be Diane Carney's day at Orchard Park Middle School.

An active member of the school's student council, she had been instrumental in instituting theme days this year, and Friday was going to be "Mismatch Day." All through the past week, the eighth-grader had been on the morning announcements pumping up the event.

"We were just kidding her yesterday, asking her what she was going to wear," Middle School Principal Joan Thomas said Friday. "Kids are taking it harder, knowing it was going to be her day."

Thomas said she found out Diane had died when she arrived at school.

Thomas called a teachers meeting before school and gave them a statement to read to students. She said four or five rooms were set up throughout the building, where children or even faculty members could go to meet with counselors.

"Because we loop our kids (keeping them with the same teachers for two years at a time), the teachers really get to know children very well," Thomas said. "They knew Diane well. She was a sweet, kind, innocent, lovely child."

The school has set up an Orchard Park Middle School/Carney Fund to help the family. Donations can be sent to the school at 60 S. Lincoln Ave., Orchard Park, N.Y. 14127.

Thomas said the school also was sending letters to parents informing them of the deaths, listing agencies that help teenagers deal with grief and suggesting that if their children go to the funeral or wake that they be accompanied by a parent.

At Orchard Park High School, Principal Robert Farwell said administrators were not able to confirm Patty's death until after school had already started. He said students had been informed of the deaths and that letters also were sent home.

Crisis response teams put into action

Crisis response teams were called into action in each of the school's "houses," which the building is divided into, for anybody who needed counseling.

Farwell said that while he was acquainted with Patty from passing in the halls, teachers who knew the junior better had described her as hardworking, honest and sincere.

"Patty had a good sense of humor and could always make you laugh," he said he had been told.

Waun Carney had worked for the past two years at the Jubilee Supermarket on Lake Avenue, where employees had already started a fund for the family, collecting more than $300 Friday morning.

"It was a pretty sad day at the store," said owner Kevin Connelly. "A lot of tears were being shed."

Connelly, who bought the store last September, said the Carneys' oldest daughter, Mary, who no longer lived at home, also works there.

"This is a neighborhood store, and the employees and customers are like family," Connelly said. "She was a great employee, and a very hard worker."

The Carneys moved to Niles Avenue in the spring of 1996, neighbors said. It had been Carney's father's house, and his sister lives nearby.

"They were the neighbors everyone wishes they had," said neighbor Kim Gagliardi. "Jim always came over to help my husband."

Newton Abbott fire chief Tom Partridge said one of his firefighters lives around the corner from the Carney house. He was out of his door within 30 seconds of getting the call and the house was engulfed in flames.

Firefighters troubled by the scene

Firefighters tried to enter the building but were pushed back by heavy flames. After pouring water on the house, Capt. James Hurd went through the front window and carried out the boy, who was pronounced dead at Mercy Hospital.

Partridge said several firefighters were troubled because of the circumstances, and the Rev. Joseph Bayne, Erie County chaplain of emergency services, was at the scene Thursday night.

Also responding as a member of the Newton Abbott fire police was Mrs. Carney's father, Partridge said. His wife also came to the scene.

"He took hold of her. He wouldn't leave his post until Father Joe convinced him to leave," Partridge said, adding that another member of the family who belonged to the fire company came to the fire and offered to help.

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