WHITMAN — While the cause of the house fire at 137 West St., has not been determined, according to Deputy Fire Chief Al Cunningham —indicating it could have been anything from an electrical malfunction to a candle — what is known is that the house is uninhabitable. Damage has been estimated at between $100,000 and $150,000.
Cunningham said he knows that the family sleeping in upstairs bedrooms inside was lucky a passerby was out walking his dog at the time.
“It’s a good thing he pounded on the door,” said Cunningham, adding the family would likely have been unaware of the fire until smoke entered the building. “Good job on him for helping.”
The neighborhood had been buzzing in the immediate aftermath of the blaze over who the “Mystery man” could have been.
For Rock Street resident Kenneth Sheehan, however, there was no mystery — it was him.
Sheehan, a corrections officer in a rehabilitation center at the Bridgewater Corrections Facilty, he said he has walked his dog past the 137 West St., house just about every day at 5 a.m.
On Thursday, Sept. 15 as they were walking by, something caught his attention behind the house.
“I walk every day at 5 in the morning in that area around my block and I came across the house,” Sheehan said last week. “I thought someone was having a campfire at first, but then I got a little closer and it was a raging inferno — fire on the deck.”
He said the flames were already going up the side of the house when he walked down the family’s short driveway to see where the flames were coming from.
“I pounded on the front door and rang the bell,” Sheehan said. He said he has seen the couple when he has walked by in the past, but didn’t really know them. They’ve met a couple of times since, though.
“They got up and got out just in time. If I had been a few minutes earlier, I might not have seen it. I might have been too late.”
Sheehan called 911, but said he left after he saw that everyone was safe and firefighters were on the scene.
The couple — who asked that the Express use only their first names Dave and Tiffany — are so glad Sheehan was there when he was. They and their three children escaped the fire along with the family dog, but the family’s two pet cats perished in the fire.
“I did not know what was going on before the gentleman knocked on the door,” Dave said Tuesday. “I kind of knew as soon as I woke up when he was banging on the door. I actually turned to my wide and said, ‘Is the house on fire?’ It’s not a normal thing first thing in the morning.”
He is a firefighter in Quincy and his wife is an employee of the EverSource call center. He said he was glad he was able to track down Sheehan’s number in order to call and thank him.
“He saved our lives,” Dave said. “We were very lucky to have had him coming by that day.”
On a day since the fire, when the couple was back in Whitman to check on the house and run a couple errands, Tiffany and their son recognized Sheehan and his dog and the two of them hopped out of the car and gave him a big hug.
Dave said his children are coping with the upheaval well enough, noting the oldest may be having a slightly harder time dealing with the loss of their home, even temporarily, but the younger ones are bouncing back.
“They feel like rock stars,” he said. “They like the attention.”
Sheehan said Monday revisiting the scene that, had he known there were two cats still in the house he would have tried going in with his black Lab, Syrus, to rescue them. He said he and Syrus often plays a “find the cat” game with their feline.
“She was calm,” he said about her reaction to the fire. “I really didn’t pay much attention to her, I was just pulling her along with me.”
And, while Sheehan seemed flattered by talk of him being a hero, he said he would not refer to himself that way. The family disagrees.
“As much gratitude as that guy can get, he deserves it, 100 percent,” Dave said. “I hope people around town maybe get him a coffee or buy him a beer.”
“I just did what I had to do,” said Sheehan, who chalked his response up to reflex from 30 years on the job with the Department of Corrections. “I did my job and it was over.”
While he may not have known the family before, there have been hugs of thanks since.
“They called me to say thanks and that, ‘You’ve saved our lives,” he said. “They thought I did great and that I’m a hero. I don’t like to say that about myself, but somebody said it. It feels good that I saved a family of five.”
Dave said he considered the contents of his home a total loss because of smoke and water damage, but he said he has had a “ton of support from the community and friends” and the family is in a stable living situation until they can rebuild.
He is looking forward to returning to Whitman.
“We love Whitman and we want to continue to live there,” he said.