Crime

Fire shocks 'tight' Lexington neighborhood after rescue attempts fail to save woman

Heavy damage was visible at the rear of the house at 1437 Copper Run Boulevard in Lexington. Kimberly Poncer, 54, who was in a wheelchair because of a brain tumor, couldn't get out and died of smoke inhalation. Her husband, Bill, made it to safety.
Heavy damage was visible at the rear of the house at 1437 Copper Run Boulevard in Lexington. Kimberly Poncer, 54, who was in a wheelchair because of a brain tumor, couldn't get out and died of smoke inhalation. Her husband, Bill, made it to safety. Herald-Leader

Throughout the day Friday, passersby took a moment to examine the damage at a Lexington home where a woman in a wheelchair was killed in an intense fire Thursday night.

One woman walking her dog stopped and bowed her head to pray for the family. It was the least she could do, she said. Car after car slowed or stopped, their drivers gazing at the empty structure on Copper Run Boulevard.

"It's just total shock and complete sadness," said Melissa Ochsenbein, describing the feelings of the quiet, close-knit neighborhood.

Kimberly Poncer, 54, died of smoke inhalation, according to the coroner's office. She was the first person to die in a house fire in Lexington in more than a year and a half.

Little damage could be seen from the front of the two-story brick house, except for two broken windows and swirling soot patterns on the front door from escaping smoke.

The back of the house told of the fire's intensity through broken windows, melted siding and piles of burnt rubble. An enclosed porch was little more than a charred frame.

The home, at 1437 Copper Run, was owned by Kimberly Poncer and her husband, William, according to Fayette County property records. Neighbors know them as Bill and Kim.

Neighbors said they heard the first sound of trouble about 11:20 p.m. Thursday as Bill Poncer yelled for help.

Tracy Herrin, who lives across the street, said she was watching TV when she heard shouting. At first, she thought kids were playing, but her son Zach looked out the window and saw the smoke and the glow of flames, she said.

While her son called 911, Herrin said she checked on Bill Poncer, who was in his front yard. She said he asked her to get a flashlight — the smoke was too thick to see through, and his wife was inside their house.

"He thought he was going to go back inside to get her out," Herrin said.

About the same time, Ochsenbein said her husband, James, ran over to help. James Ochsenbein asked whether Kim was inside. Bill Poncer "hysterically" said she was. But 911 operators advised him not to go inside because of the smoke, Melissa Ochsenbein said.

But James Ochsenbein tried, his wife said. He opened the door and was greeted by a wall of thick smoke. He attempted to crawl in under the smoke but had to turn around, she said.

Hours later, as the Ochsenbeins were going to sleep, Melissa said her husband described what it was like in the house.

"It was eerie," she said. "There was no noise in the house at all. Just silence."

Within minutes of several 911 calls — one by Bill Poncer and at least two by neighbors — the first fire trucks arrived. Soon, the street was packed with fire trucks, ambulances and police cars, and twice as many concerned neighbors.

Several firefighters went inside the house, Zach Herrin said. Their uniforms — standard issue tan with yellow reflectors — "were just completely black" when they came back outside.

Melissa Ochsenbein recalled seeing a firefighter break one of the windows, and an ominous column of smoke poured out.

"The smoke was so thick and so black," she said. "I've never seen anything like that before."

Two firefighters were injured battling the blaze, Battalion Chief Randy Gilliam said. One had minor burns on his face, and another sprained his ankle.

Despite their efforts, firefighters were unable to save Kim Poncer.

Neighbors described her as a pleasant woman who had been battling complications from a brain tumor for some time.

Ochsenbein said that when she and her husband moved into the neighborhood about 2½ years ago, Bill and Kim Poncer, who was in a wheelchair then, brought them brownies "to welcome us to the neighborhood."

The tumor had interfered with Kim Poncer's motor skills, affecting her speech and mobility. Bill Poncer had quit his job years ago to take care of her full-time, neighbors said.

Fire officials had not determined the cause of the fire Friday, Gilliam said. Kim Poncer's death was being investigated as an accident, the coroner's release said.

The last person to die in a house fire in Lexington was Lillian Lewis, 62. Her body was found in March 2010 in the den of the Pimlico Parkway home she shared with her husband.

Friday afternoon, the calmness of the Copper Run neighborhood belied the frenzy of the night before. Except for the sound of a gas generator powering a TV news van, it seemed as if the eerie silence James Ochsenbein described had enveloped the entire neighborhood.

Many neighbors were at work. Others stayed at home with their families, disappointed they couldn't have done more to help.

"I think everybody is in a state of shock," Tracy Herrin said. "We all know each other. We all look out for each other."

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