JACKSON TWP — Charles Matesic was drifting off to sleep about 8 p.m. Wednesday when thick smoke began pouring from the heating duct in his bedroom.
“I ran over to Donny's door and pounded on it,” Matesic said of Donald A. “Donny” Sutch, 53, who died in the fire at the apartment building on German Street. “I didn't hear a peep from his apartment.”
Still seeing no flames, Matesic ran back across the hallway to his apartment and flung open a window.
“By the time I went back to the hallway, the whole thing was filled with so much smoke that I was disoriented,” he said Thursday afternoon. “So I dropped down and crawled out the back door on my hands and knees. I barely made it out.”
Matesic then ran to the next adjacent apartment and pounded on the exterior door, telling his neighbor to call 911. Then he and the neighbor woke up a couple in the next apartment, enabling them to escape. It was only then that Matesic saw flames shooting from Sutch's unit.
The group pounded on the door of the remaining apartment in the brick annex in the rear of the sprawling apartment house, but got no response. They later found out the tenant was not home at the time of the fire.
Fire investigators suspect careless smoking caused the blaze that also forced more than a dozen other tenants to flee.
Sutch may have died when a smoldering cigarette ignited and quickly engulfed his apartment.
“He was a heavy smoker,” Township Police Chief Terry Seilhamer said Thursday, “and the preliminary investigation found that smoking was likely involved in this fire.”
Harmony firefighters responding to the fire about 8:30 p.m. later found Sutch unconscious on the floor of his bedroom in the 10-unit apartment building his father owns. Sutch served for years as the maintenance man at the building that once was a nursing home, authorities said.
Harmony EMS paramedics were unable to revive him, and an autopsy determined he died of smoke inhalation, said Butler County Deputy Coroner Larry Barr.
Up to 15 other tenants had to flee the smoke that spread throughout the three-story building.
Matesic had to be taken to a hospital after being overcome by smoke.
Also, a firefighter from one of four departments that were called had to be treated at the scene for stress-related exhaustion, said Chief Neal Nanna of the Harmony Volunteer Fire Company.
Trooper Luke Nelson of the state police fire marshal's office, the lead investigator, was quickly able to find where the blaze broke out, authorities said.
“The burn pattern is pretty clear,” Seilhamer said, “that the fire started in the love seat/couch in the living room.”
Investigators believe Sutch was smoking there and possibly dropped the cigarette or an ash before he got up and went to his bedroom.
“The fire must have smoldered in the upholstery of the couch for a while before it got going,” Seilhamer said.
Nanna and township police were the first rescuers to the apartment building and found heavy smoke coming out the back, where Sutch's apartment was located as part of a one-story addition.
Nanna and police Sgt. Tim Amrhein forced in Sutch's locked door but the fire was too heavy.
“We were knocked back by the smoke,” Nanna said
A fire crew from Harmony got there minutes later and went inside. Sutch was found unresponsive, Seilhamer said.
Nanna and Seilhamer said that while some of the apartments were equipped with smoke detectors, it was not known if Sutch's apartment had one.
“We couldn't tell,” Seilhamer said, “because part of the ceiling had been removed.”
Firefighters were able to contain the fire to Sutch's apartment but the remainder of the building sustained smoke damage.
Fire officials estimated the total damage at $50,000.
Although yellow caution tape encircled the apartment building Thursday, the main building appeared undamaged. Workers labored in the cold to board up windows and fire up a generator so the pipes inside wouldn't freeze and burst.
Matesic visited his apartment early Thursday afternoon to try and determine the amount of smoke damage. He plans to talk to his insurance agent.
A peek into Sutch's apartment showed Matesic that the entire dwelling was gutted by the fire.
“Everything is charred,” he said.
Regarding the fire company's response, Matesic said engines arrived within 10 minutes of the 911 call. He said firefighters did an outstanding job battling the blaze, and knocked the flames down quickly.
Matesic, who has lived in the building for 25 years, said Sutch was a quiet man with whom he occasionally enjoyed a beer on the back porch in the heat of the summer.
While Matesic did not know Sutch well, he feels for the man's family.
“I'm very sorry for their loss,” he said.
The electricity was off in the building Thursday, and police told tenants they could retrieve basic items from their homes but could not remain inside.
Rob Lombardo, Penn Power spokesman, said he was unsure when power would be restored.
“It could be months; it could be a few days,” Lombardo said.