Tragedy struck New Year’s Eve as a three-alarm fire in Lancaster left two teen sisters dead in the fast-moving blaze.
Crews from the Lancaster City Bureau of Fire were dispatched Saturday at 10:36 a.m. to the 400 block of West Lemon Street for the report of a fire with entrapment. Firefighters discovered heavy flames coming from a three-story duplex at 427 W. Lemon St.
According to city officials, firefighters quickly rescued two victims inside the home and provided emergency medical care at the scene. They were then transported to Lancaster General Hospital with life-threatening injuries.
The victims included 18-year-old Anna Leavitt and 13-year-old Ariana Leavitt. Anna was pronounced dead on Saturday at the hospital, while Ariana passed away early Monday morning, according to city officials.
On Monday, Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni announced Anna’s cause of death was the result of smoke inhalation and was accidental.
At the scene, the blaze was eventually upgraded to a third alarm, bringing out about 50 firefighters from seven responding agencies to the scene.
Crews extinguished the fire within 45 minutes but remained on the scene until shortly before 5 p.m. Members of the Lancaster City Fire Marshal Division, Lancaster City Bureau of Police and the Pennsylvania State Police Fire Marshal’s office were all dispatched to the scene to investigate the blaze.
By Monday, investigators ruled the fire accidental “due to electrical failure.” The house sustained “significant damage,” officials said, and was condemned by the city.
According to county property records, the home is owned by Nenita Faller-Miller and the late Harvey S. Miller, a prominent local lawyer and the former president of the School District of Lancaster Board of School Directors who passed away in May. Miller was also involved in the offices of former Lancaster mayors Janice Stork and Richard Gray, while Faller-Miller also served on the School District of Lancaster Board of School Directors.
Current Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace thanked first responders for their “incredible response” at the scene of the fire through a social media post on Monday.
“Lancaster City Fire and Police Bureaus were on the scene in minutes and were aided by many other area first responders,” Sorace said in a post on social media. “In the face of tragedy, this is what teamwork looks like. They worked quickly to rescue victims and knock out the fire. Other residents (and their pets) in the adjacent building are safe, and for this, I am so grateful.”
Tributes to the two fire victims started emerging soon after the incident over the weekend.
School District of Lancaster acting Superintendent Matthew Przywara issued a statement on Monday, saying the district was mourning the passing of the two students and offered condolences. Anna was a senior at McCaskey High School, while Ariana was an eighth grader at Reynolds Middle School.
Przywara said the district was opening schools on Monday to offer support for staff impacted by the loss, and counselors were available on Tuesday for both students and staff as they returned to school after the winter break.
“In the days to come, our crisis support team will remain engaged to provide support to both students and staff as needed,” Przywara said in his statement. “We ask that you keep all those affected by this heartbreaking tragedy in your thoughts and prayers.”
Reynolds Middle School Principal Aaron Swinton sent a letter to parents and staff notifying them about the fire, saying that the deaths of the sisters was “sure to raise many emotions, concerns and questions for our entire school, especially our students.” Swinton encouraged parents to communicate with their children about the loss and to make sure they were able to handle any difficult emotions that may arise.
“Oftentimes, death is truly understood when it is placed in the hands of someone you love,” Swinton said in his letter. “Both Anna and Ariana were truly loved by the RMS community and will be sorely missed. Life is precious and it is important that we cherish every moment. Do not sweat the little things, share love, and joy with one another.”
Sorace offered her own condolences to the two victims and their family, saying her “heart is heavy” after learning the news.
“I had the privilege of watching Anna and Ariana grow up – attending some of the same schools as my daughter where they were active, engaged friends and students, and bright lights at McCaskey and Reynolds,” Sorace said in her statement. “My thoughts are with their mother and grandmother during this incredibly difficult time. Please pray for them and all those who knew and loved Anna and Ariana.”
A fund to support the family was set up at Community Action Partnership of Lancaster County on Monday. Officials said donations can be made online by clicking on “Donate Now” and designating “Lemon Street Fire” for the donation under the Additional Information tab on the website.
Community members began gathering near the scene of the fire as a light drizzle fell Saturday afternoon, watching firefighters and investigators coming in and out of the charred front door.
Debris from broken windows and melted shutters filled the sidewalk in front of the home that still had campaign signs from the 2022 General Election planted in the ground and hanging on a fence.
By Sunday afternoon, a makeshift memorial was created near a tree in front of the house with flowers and teddy bears. Several children wrote messages with chalk on the sidewalk, including “Sending love, hope and sympathy” with hearts.
The neighboring building at 429 W. Lemon St. also suffered extensive damage from the fire.
Trim Salon, which occupies the first floor at 429 W. Lemon St. announced Sunday on social media that the business will be closed until further notice. The business owners said they thanked the community for their “support and understanding during this difficult time.”
“First and foremost, our hearts ache for our neighbors who are suffering an unimaginable loss, and we empathize along side our fellow tenants who have lost their homes in this horrific fire,” said representatives from the salon on social media.
The Lancaster City Bureau of Fire also issued a statement reminding residents to install smoke detectors on every floor of their homes and in every bedroom and to test smoke detectors once a month. The department said if residents don’t have working smoke detectors, the city can provide detectors and installation free of charge to qualified homeowners.