PLATTSBURGH — A raging house fire claimed the life of a Plattsburgh toddler early Wednesday.
Firefighters and State Police were called to 2 Summer Drive in the Maple Pond Mobile Home Community at about 6 a.m. after Phillip Guastella and his girlfriend, Trina LaForest, smelled smoke inside the residence.
As District 3 and Beekmantown firefighters responded to the call, Guastella and LaForest were able to flee to safety with their 4-month-old infant, Lilly Ann Guastella.
But they were unable to save LaForest’s daughter, 22-month-old Tori O’Neil. The toddler died inside the home before crews were able to douse the flames.
District 3 Second Assistant Fire Chief Steve Fuller said he was the first emergency-responder to arrive.
“There was fire coming out of every window and door of the residence,” he said.
Fuller was told there was a toddler still inside.
One crew went in the door to the west to attempt to knock down the flames and conduct a search. They were driven back by the intense heat and flames. One firefighter fell through the buckling floor but escaped injury.
“There was so much flame and heat in there, no one inside was going to survive,” Fuller said.
Firefighters used two compressed air-foam systems to knock down the majority of the fire within minutes, he said.
They then found Tori in a bedroom.
TRIED TO GET CHILD
Guastella said he and Laforest were sleeping in their bed when the fire started.
“Trina woke me up and said, ‘Hey honey, do you smell smoke?’”
Guastella told her he smelled a little smoke and looked out a window but didn’t see any.
“I opened the bedroom door, and the whole house was engulfed in smoke and flames,” he said.
Guastella said he smashed one of their bedroom windows and pretty much threw Trina and their dog out the window.
He tried to go down the hallway to rescue Tori but was driven back by flames and smoke before he got very far.
Blinded by smoke, Guastella broke down his daughter’s door and was able to get her out of the home.
LIKE HER FATHER
Guastella said that even though he wasn’t Tori’s biological father, he loved her like his own. And that feeling was mutual, he said, as he would always give her a kiss goodnight right before bed, and Tori would tell him,
Tuesday’s goodnight kiss “was the last one I ever got,” Guastella said through tears. “I’m going to miss playing with her.”
She would often bring him a diaper and tell him Lilly Ann needed to be wiped and changed.
“That baby (Tori) always made me laugh, you know. She was just my little helper.”
An autopsy was performed Wednesday at CVPH Medical Center by Dr. Deonarayan Saha. He said the cause of death as pending toxicology and histology results.
It was initially unclear who owns the home, which was destroyed.
NO CAUSE YET
District 3 received automatic mutual-aid assistance from the Beekmantown Fire Department. Morrisonville Fire Department was on standby at District 3 Station 1, and South Plattsburgh was on standby at Station 2.
Two District 3 trucks remained there late Wednesday morning to provide equipment to assist with the investigation. Fuller said no cause had yet been determined.
New York State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation and a State Forensic team were joined by state and county fire investigators to investigate the blaze. They were inside the charred remains of the home later Wednesday morning, which
was cordoned off with yellow police tape.
Large amounts of scorched insulation and furniture littered the property, while big holes in the structure showed where firefighters attacked the flames.
While both adults appeared physically sound, Fuller said he knows they are suffering mentally.
“I’ve got two kids. It’s my biggest fear.”
Firefighters take it hard when a home is lost, he said, but much more so when a life is lost. One of the firefighters who found the infant has a child about the same age
“It makes it hard,” Fuller said.
A stress debriefing was scheduled for Wednesday evening.
Fuller said the only other fatal fire he remembers in District 3 was when an adult died about 12 years ago in Heritage Heights, near the intersection of Tom Miller Road and Military Turnpike.
He hopes the family is able to recover from the tragedy.
“I told all of our guys, ‘Give your kids a hug today.’ I did already.”
Email Dan Heath at: firstname.lastname@example.org