A Black Rock man perished in a two-alarm, wind-whipped fire that ruined three houses early Wednesday morning. But it could have been far worse.
Richard J. Ode Jr., 41, tried to escape from his first-floor bedroom but collapsed and died in a closet.
His 15-year-old son, Scott Ode, narrowly escaped out the front door of 382 Hertel Ave., as his lungs filled with heavy smoke. Samantha Ode, the 20-year-old daughter of the deceased, said she was in a deep sleep when she began breathing in the smoke that had filled her second-floor bedroom.
"I broke a back window and jumped out of the house," the Buffalo State College junior said. She landed on a lower roof and was able to make her way to safety.
But luck ran out for her father. Family and friends believe he tried to escape from his bedroom but became disoriented in the thick smoke. Instead of getting out of the bedroom, they said, he opened a closet door and went inside apparently thinking it was an exit.
Fire officials said it was a miracle that there was only one fatality. They cited the quickness with which the blaze spread because of the strong overnight winds and the lack of a functioning smoke alarm in the house.
Family members said the 2 1/2 -story, wood-frame house was being remodeled and that might have accounted for the absence of a working smoke alarm being up on a ceiling.
Within minutes, the fire spread to homes on either side of the Ode residence, and neighbors escaped with barely the clothes on their backs.
As of late Wednesday, fire investigators were still trying to determine a cause for the fire, though foul play, they said, does not appear to be involved.
Ada Rodriguez, a second-floor tenant at 384 Hertel, said she awoke to the sound of breaking windows in a vehicle parked in the driveway below her bedroom.
When Rodriguez raised her window shade, she said, the glow of flames from the Ode home filled her bedroom with an eerie light.
"I called 911 at 1:07 a.m. and I told the operator that my bedroom window was hot, and the operator said, 'Lady, back away from the window and get out,' " Rodriguez said.
Outside, Lisa Bochiarz, the girlfriend of the deceased and the mother of Samantha and Scott, had just arrived home from work at a local factory and was screaming for help, according to her daughter.
With three houses ablaze, the street filled up with survivors. There was Rodriguez and her 81-year-old landlord, Gottlieb Thomas, and his son, Ed Thomas, who lived on the first floor of 384 Hertel, at the intersection of Deer Street.
Two doors west, at 378 Hertel, Richard J. Ode Sr., the father of the deceased, and another relative, Daniel Popp, also escaped unharmed.
"The flames were coming right up. There was yelling and I got out," Popp said.
Scott, a Hutchinson-Central Technical High School student, was taken to Erie County Medical Center, where he was treated for smoke inhalation and released. Family members said his dog, Peaches, followed him out the front door and survived. A second dog and a pet bird perished.
But family and friends could not stop thinking about Richard "Ricky" Ode.
"He probably thought the closet door was the way out," said Dennis Thomas, a friend of the Ode for the past 30 years.
Samantha Ode said she is the first to go to college in her family and that her dad was her biggest supporter.
"I've lost all my class notebooks and books in the fire, but I'm going to finish college for him. He encouraged me to do good. My dad was my hero," said Samantha, who is majoring in hospitality and tourism.
Throughout the day, she and her relatives wept and hugged each other, refusing to leave the scene where so much had been lost. Firefighters estimated the total damage to the three houses and contents was $215,000, but it was the death of Richard Ode that hurt the most.
Relatives discussed his life and how the disabled man, who had previously worked as a part-time janitor at Buffalo Psychiatric Center, loved Halloween, only a few days away.
Then, suddenly, a ray of hope pierced the gloomy morning.
Fire Investigator Kevin Lozano, covered in ash, stepped out of 382 Hertel with a bird cage.
Deborah Skinner, Ode's oldest sister, started shouting that her brother's pet parrot had survived.
The green and gray bird, blinking its little eyes and shivering, had been found by Lozano in the basement of the home, where he was checking to make sure the fire was completely out.
"I heard this squawking and it kind of startled me," Lozano said, pleased that he could deliver some cheer to the grieving family and friends. "It's the little things that bring light to a dark situation."
When the bird was moved to Skinner's heated van, she said, it started squawking, "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
In addition to his two children, father, sister and girlfriend, Ode is survived by another son, Ricky, and three other sisters, Kimberly, Judy and Jodi. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.