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Neighbors save mother from fire

POSTED: February 13, 2012 6:12 p.m.
Photo by Pat Donahue/

Vernon Warner died in an early Saturday morning fire at this house on Greene Drive. His wife Audrey survived with severe burns and was taken to Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta and their three children escaped unharmed.

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A Rincon mother is recuperating in an Augusta burn center after an early Saturday morning fire claimed the life of her husband and destroyed their home, after neighbors dashed in and pulled her to safety.

Vernon Warner, 39, died in the fire that broke out around 1 a.m. Saturday at his Greene Drive home in the Westwood Heights subdivision.

An autopsy conducted Monday concluded that Warner died from smoke inhalation. The state fire marshal’s investigation revealed that the fire started on the kitchen stove, and it has been ruled accidental.

Cliff Helmey said he heard someone screaming just after 1 a.m.

“My first reaction was there was a fight somewhere,” he said. “I went to see what it was and it was two little girls running down the road screaming for help.”

The Warners’ children escaped the blaze, with the oldest girl, 13, having kicked out a window and ushering the other two kids out of the house, according to Helmey. When he looked toward the house, he could see a fire in the back of the home, which is three doors down from his residence.

“My first reaction was to take off running,” he said.

When he got there, he said, he started beating on the front door, and he could hear Audrey Warner inside, screaming for help.

“The door was locked and I couldn’t get her to come to the door,” Helmey said. “So I kicked in the door and about that time, the heat was awful, tremendous.”

Helmey said he began knocking out windows to relieve some of the smoke fumes and he ran around to the garage, where there was another door to the house. He kicked that door in, but “the heat was even worse,” he said.

Other neighbors showed up to help but they couldn’t get the water spigot to work, Helmey said. He ran back into the garage and called for Mrs. Warner again.

“It sounded like she was more toward the back of the house,” he said. “Those doors were locked as well and I kicked that door in.

But the back of the house is where the fire started and there was no way to get in there.”

It sounded at that point as if she were toward the front of the house, Helmey said, and other neighbors were calling for her to come to the front door.

“It was so loud and disorienting,” he said. “There was smoke and heat and flames and explosions going off in the house. It was very confusing for anyone in there.”

Helmey ran back to the garage but the door there slammed as he approached, he said.

“The heat was tremendous,” he said.

Kevin McCoy, another neighbor, tried to reach Mrs. Warner and pull her to safety but couldn’t get her. Another neighbor had a flashlight and they spotted her on the living room floor.

Helmey said he dashed back inside, threw a coffee table out of the way and grabbed her by the leg to start pulling her out of harm’s way.

“Without thinking, I said, ‘I’m not going to let her burn up in there,’ so I ran in,” he said. “By this time, the flames had made their way to the living room and it looked like liquid fire on the ceiling. I could feel my skin get really hot. But I wasn’t going to let go of her.”

Helmey got Mrs. Warner to the front door, and McCoy pulled them both out. Witnesses told Helmey the flames followed them out of the door.

As Mrs. Warner reached safety, Helmey lost consciousness.

“Our whole thing was getting her out at any cost, and when I seen her, I just bolted,” he said. “That was my first thought — I’ve got to get her out of there. I can’t let her burn up. I grabbed her by the leg and started pulling. I was cooking the whole time; I felt my skin just burning. By the time I got out, I was just depleted of oxygen.”

Effingham County Sheriff’s deputies Cpl. Jason Garland and Courtney Goldwire carried Audrey Warner from in front of the residence to the road and out of further danger, according to reports.

Mrs. Warner was given CPR but she suffered third degree burns on her arms, legs and feet and second degree burns on back and stomach and face, Helmey said. Had it not been for her children getting out of the house and screaming for help, he might never have known they were in danger.

“The oldest knew the house was on fire, and her first reaction was to kick the bedroom window out and they didn’t realize the parents were still trapped inside,” he said.

McCoy was on his way home and saw Helmey running down the road, and Helmey said he started waving him on to help.

Helmey also suffered burns, along with cuts and scrapes, and there are pieces of glass in his hand.

“Everybody did a tremendous job,” Helmey said. “I couldn’t have done it by myself. People were asking me if I felt like a hero and I said, no, it could have been my family. I’d have done it for anybody.”

Helmey met Vernon Warner a few weeks ago, and Warner invited him to his birthday party.

“He was a loving man, from what I understood,” Helmey said, “Just a real awesome man, a real good guy. I hate it for those children, but I’m thankful they didn’t lose their mother.”

Authorities said Vernon Warner’s body was found near the front door inside of the residence.

“I had no idea he was there,” Helmey said. “He was only 10 feet from the entrance but I never saw him. She was the only one crying for help. It’s really sad that Mr. Vernon couldn’t make it. I’m just thankful those children still have their mother.”

The children are staying with relatives, and Audrey Warner was taken to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta for treatment.

Several agencies responded and assisted including the Rincon Fire Department, Effingham County Fire Department, Effingham County EMS, Effingham County Sheriff’s Office, Rincon Police Department, Lifestar, and the American Red Cross.

A fund for Audrey Warner has been established at Wells Fargo. Those wishing to donate should ask for Rincon fatal fire.

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