Man killed, fire chief injured in Carter County fire

John Thompson • Updated Mar 9, 2017 at 11:09 AM

Editor’s Note: Watauga Volunteer Fire Department Chief Benny Colbaugh was standing on the front porch spraying water through a window of a burning house at 391 Cripple Creek Loop on Wednesday morning when an explosion blew him back into another firefighter. Colbaugh was knocked out. He quickly regained consciousness, and a short time later he found the body of a still unidentified man.

The article below incorrectly identified Colbaugh’s location when the explosion occurred.

ELIZABETHTON — The burned body of a man was found in a burning residence at 391 Cripple Creek Loop on Wednesday and the firefighter who found the body was blown through a window during an explosion or backdraft in the house.

The man who burned in the fire has not yet been identified. An autopsy has been scheduled today at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine.

Benny Colbaugh, chief of the Watauga Volunteer Fire Department and Carter County coroner, was the firefighter who was injured. Colbaugh said he suffered only minor injuries to his neck and face. He said one ear bothered him but his most painful injury was from the fall he took out the window. Colbaugh said he landed on the air tank he was wearing.

“I am 59, the body doesn’t stand the pain quite as well when you get older,” Colbaugh said. Despite the incident, Colbaugh remained at his post until the fire was extinguished. He said he made sure all hot spots were out.

Wednesday morning was an especially tough day for the Watauga firefighters as another house fire  in Watauga’s district was reported as the firefighters were putting out the Cripple Creek Loop fire. The second fire was at 296 Lacy Hollow Road. The department was dispatched to the Cripple Creek Loop fire at 8:14 a.m. The Lacy Hollow Road fire was called in at 11:33 a.m. There were no injuries reported at the second fire.

After the body was found, Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said, “The fire marshal has been called and the Criminal Investigation Division is on the scene.” Colbaugh said Don Cogan with the state fire marshal’s office was called in.

Lunceford and Colbaugh each said the cause of the fire was not known.

When the fire was first reported to 911, the caller said a man was still inside the burning house. Just five minutes later, at 8:19 a.m., the caller said the house was “fully involved now.” The body had not been located at that time.

“It was a hot fire,” Lunceford said, ““It was burning up the walls and through the roof.”

Colbaugh was given a description of where the body might be and went inside. When he was able to get in the bedroom where the body was believed to be, he found the body but an explosion blew him out the window. He considered it fortunate to have been blown through the window and away from the fire. He believes the explosion may have been a backdraft. 

“I was knocked out for a little while. They said I was out for about 30 seconds,” Colbaugh said,

Watauga received assistance from the other volunteer fire departments serving the western half of Carter County, including Central, Stoney Creek, West Carter County and Hampton.

Just a short time later, the Lacy Hollow Fire was reported. Watauga was once again the primary fire department, while firefighters and equipment from Hampton, Stoney Creek and Central also responded to the midday fire. Workers with the American Red Cross were also dispatched to the scene.

Lunceford said the Lacy Hollow fire was caused by a loose connection on a gas fireplace. He said everyone made it to safety in that fire. Lunceford also said none of his officers suffered injuries in the two fires.

“I really appreciate those (other) departments. It is always hard when the fire happens when people are working. I really don’t know what I would have done if had not been for their help,” Colbaugh said.

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