Family friend describes fatal Tuesday house fire

Friday, June 12, 2009 | 4:59 p.m. CDT; updated 4:39 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 14, 2009
Gayla Hart, 48, was hospitalized with severe burns she received Tuesday morning in the house fire that claimed the life of her father, Joseph Hart.

COLUMBIA — A woman burned in a house fire Tuesday morning in northern Boone County was in serious condition Friday afternoon and is expected to remain hospitalized for at least six weeks, her stepfather said today.

Gayla Hart, 48, suffered severe burns in the fire that destroyed the 6300 O’Rear Road home she shared with her son and grandson, and her father, Joseph Hart, who died in the blaze.

Gary Porter, stepfather of Gayla Hart and owner of the home, said he was told by hospital officials that she underwent a skin graft and is expected to remain in the hospital six to eight weeks. Porter lives in a house on the same 40-acre property where the Harts lived.

At the time of the fire, Gayla Hart was living in the home with her son, Brandon Stone, his 4-year-old son, and her father, Joseph Hart, 72.

Porter was at home when the fire began. He said Stone called in the fire. Stone, his 4-year-old son, and family friend Gerry Fox all escaped unharmed.

Fox did not live in the home with the family, but was at the house helping Joseph Hart with home repairs. He said he was sleeping in one of the home’s bedrooms when the fire began. He was awakened by Stone’s son, who called his name and yelled, “Fire!”

Fox then ran out of the bedroom and noticed the couch that Gayla Hart was sleeping on, as well as a wall and curtains, had caught fire. After waking her up and attempting to extinguish the couch fire with a bowl of water, Fox told Stone to take his son outside.

“Brandon opened the door and, poof,” Fox said, describing how a large fire ball erupted in the home. The next thing he remembers seeing was Gayla Hart standing, her skin visibly burned.

“I ran her outside,” Fox said. After getting her seated outside the house, Stone and his son yelled that Joseph Hart was still in his bedroom. Fox went back into the living room, which was now completely engulfed in flames. He then ran back outside and removed the air conditioning unit from the window leading into Joseph Hart’s bedroom, hoping to be able to pull him out.

Fox said he yelled, “Joe, come to the window!" and attempted to squeeze through the small window three times before deputies from the Boone County Sheriff’s Department arrived on scene. After explaining the situation, the deputies told Fox to stand aside while firefighters extinguished the blaze.

“I stood there, just looking at the house,” Fox said.

Firefighters could not reach Joseph Hart because of the heavy fire and smoke, Detective Tom O’Sullivan of the Boone County Sheriff’s Department said.

“I loved him like a dad,” Fox said. “He was a very kind, nice gentleman.”

O’Sullivan said at least two dogs were in the house at the time of the fire. One was found dead in the home and the whereabouts of the other, a female boxer, are still unknown.

Porter said he has some insurance for the house, which did not contain smoke detectors.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation by the Missouri State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Boone County Fire Protection District, Interim Fire Chief Scott Olsen of the fire district said.

Meanwhile, Porter is worried about his stepdaughter's hospital bills and has created the “Gayla Hart Fund” at Boone County National Bank in Hallsville.

“At this point, I suppose (the funds) will go for medical,” Porter said, adding that he's also concerned about finding a new place for her to live. Donations can be made to  any Boone County National Bank branch.


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