When Don Howard was told Monday night his brother’s home caught fire, he quickly made the short drive to the home in the 900 block of Sixth Avenue.
He tried to run into the burning building — where flames were shooting 30 feet in the air — but was held back by Middletown police officers. When Howard saw the location and intensity of the flames, he knew his brother, James “Butch” Gann, 71, was trapped in the home because he needed assistance with his walker.
“I’m a spiritual guy,” Howard said Tuesday morning while standing outside his brother’s home. “This is the way it is with the Lord. I knew he was gone. I knew it. He’s in a better place.”
Fire Chief Paul Lolli said the area was investigated by the department’s canine, Scottie, that searches for accelerants, and nothing was detected. The cause was also not electrical, Lolli said. He said it may take “some time” to determine the cause of the fire.
This was the first fatal fire in Middletown since Nov. 17, 2017 when Odell Wize, 91, caught himself on fire when he was lighting his water heater in the basement of his home in the 600 block of 20th Avenue, fire officials said.
On Tuesday morning, with the smell of smoke still fresh in the air, Howard and Joshua Jones, Gann’s son, stood in the street and greeted numerous well-wishers who drove by the house.
Jones said he knocked down the front door trying to rescue his father, who was watching TV in a back room. But Jones was unable to reach his father. He can’t comprehend his father, an Army veteran who served during Vietnam, dying in a house fire.
“I don’t believe he went that way,” Jones said. “It hurts real bad.”
He said his father was a volunteer cook at the Louella Thompson “Feed The Hungry” program and coached for about 15 years in the Pee Wee Football program in Middletown. The players called him “Coach Butch,” his son said.
“He was like a father figure to a lot of people,” Jones said. “My dad cared about anyone who came over here.”
Gann’s brother, standing nearby, added, “He’s going to be missed. Everybody loved him.”
Howard said his sister-in-law had just left the home Monday night to spend time with her grandchildren when the fire apparently started. Howard said his brother suffered third-degree burns several months ago in a cooking accident when he caught his sweater on fire.
A woman called the Middletown 911 center Monday night and told a dispatcher the “house is on fire. There is an old man in the house.”
At first, the caller did not know what street she was on, then someone standing nearby said it was Sixth Avenue.
The woman, then using a different cell phone, is heard saying, “Mom, dad’s house is on fire.”
A few seconds later, the dispatcher tells the woman that no one should enter into the burning house.