An East Aurora mother rescued with her three children from a burning trailer home has been charged by police, who said Sunday the incident came within minutes of turning into a deadly tragedy.
Kirstin Kelly, 28, of Olean Road, was charged Saturday night with third-degree assault, reckless endangerment and endangering the welfare of the children. The charges came a day after what East Aurora police termed a suspicious fire in the Aurora Mobile Home Park prompted a next-door neighbor to rush in and save the mother and her children – two boys, ages 4 and 5, and a baby girl born one month ago.
“It’s my belief, and my fellow fire investigators would agree, that there was a less than two-minute time where this would have turned from a heroic act to a multiple-person fatal fire,” said East Aurora Police Lt. Patrick Welch in recounting the Friday night rescue.
Kelly reportedly drank a box of wine Friday afternoon and then passed out, shortly after she tried to cook something for the children to eat. Welch said they do not believe the fire was intentionally set, but that instead the food cooking on the stove was left unattended, sparking a fire that spread to the curtains over the stove while Kelly was unconscious on the couch.
Next-door neighbor Robert Stauber, 41, crawled into the trailer four separate times after the 4:24 p.m. fire to pull Kelly and her children out of the trailer, which was filled with thick black smoke.
“I was scared to death looking that fire, like what a person might feel as they are about to jump off a cliff,” said Stauber, describing the rush of adrenaline he experienced, but he added, “What was the option? People were about to die.”
Welch said Stauber had just arrived home from work and smelled something burning. He went outside to investigate because he thought it was his car, but then saw the smoke coming from his next-door neighbor’s trailer. He said Stauber thought he heard a moan.
Stauber knocked on the door several times to try to rouse Kelly. The door, already buckling from the heat, was unlocked and as Stauber opened it, thick black smoke billowed out.
Stauber got on his hands and knees and began crawling inside. He was unable to see in the thick smoke, but felt his way along, sweeping his arm to find any victims, Welch said. He first found the couch and located Kelly, unconscious and overcome by smoke. After he dragged her out he went back 15 to 20 feet into the trailer, past the couch, finding the door to the boys’ bedroom. Stauber struggled to open the bedroom door unaware it was a sliding door and there was no handle. Stauber said he believes he was overcome by smoke during his struggle and may have briefly fainted.
“He came to, got up on his knees and gave it all he had. I guess he ripped the door off the frame to get it open,” Welch said.
Stauber crawled into the bedroom and felt a kid on the floor, swooped up the semi-conscious boy and brought out the 5-year-old, putting him on top of his mother. He knew there were more children in the trailer and believed the boys slept together, so he went back in and found the 4-year-old and pulled him out.
Stauber thought he was done, but then remembered Kelly had recently given birth. He went in a fourth time and spotted the bassinet in the living room. He crawled over and reached up, again feeling his way until he located the 1-month-old girl and brought her to safety.
“It takes a special person to go into a burning building with firefighters gear, so when you hear a person went into a building four different times without any gear and was able to save a mother and three children, that would certainly give him hero status,” said Welch.
“I didn’t know I was capable of taking that step through the door. I didn’t know I was that person,” said Stauber looking back on Sunday night at the Friday rescue. He added, “I’m no hero. I’m no savior. I acted on fear [adrenaline] alone.”
He said he never stopped to think if he would choose to go into the fire.
“I never put myself into consideration,” said Stauber.
The children were taken by ambulance to Mercy Hospital after being rescued Friday afternoon, where they were treated for smoke inhalation and then released after about eight hours.
Kelly was taken by ambulance and admitted to Erie County Medical Center on Friday for treatment of smoke inhalation and intoxication. She was charged Saturday night after she left the hospital. The assault charge stems from the injuries the children suffered.
She was arraigned in Aurora Town Court by Judge Jeffrey Markello and released from the Erie County Holding Center after posting $1,000 bail. A return court appearance was set for Tuesday.
The three children are in the custody of relatives, and a case has been opened by Erie County Child Protective Services, said Welch. Kelly also has two other children, who were not living with her.
The house trailer was a total loss, with damage estimated at more than $50,000.
The father of the children, who lives at the address, was at work at the time of the fire.