It will never be known what caused the fire that killed a Payette couple Jan. 2, but it is a well-known fact that Phil and Darlene Skelly shared a special love.

That love was mentioned by family members repeatedly during interviews last week.

“Their love for each other was an inspiration I think, to me,” said Phil Skelly’s eldest daughter, Tracy Krekeler, of Salmon, during a phone interview last week. “We have a recent picture of Dad looking at Darlene and you can see the love he had in his eyes for Darlene. … They were an amazing couple. They truly loved each other.”

That sentiment was echoed by Phil’s sister-in-law Pat Skelly.

“They loved each other so much,” she said.

According to family members, Phil doted on Darlene.

“She was his life,” Krekeler said, adding that although the couple’s death was tragic, she was grateful they were together.

“I praise God that they were together, and one wasn’t left behind. I’m so very, very thankful for that, even though it was a horrible accident,” she said. “That speaks to the mercy of God and how he wanted their future to be ordained. They were meant to be together.”

‘No clear evidence’ of what started the blaze

On Jan. 4, the Skellys were identified by Payette County Coroner Keith Schuller as the two individuals who died in a house fire that wasn’t seen by witnesses until sometime shortly before midnight on Jan. 2. The fire burned for more than an hour near the living room area before breaking out in a full-blown blaze.

That’s according to a news release from Idaho State Fire Marshal Knute Sandahl, who also said the fire was not suspicious.

“A hole in the floor suggests the fire burned for up to two hours before being noticed,” according to a press release from his office.

After examining “several potential sources of ignition,” there was “no clear evidence” of the cause.

“Fires involving fatalities are especially difficult and receive top priority,” Sandahl said in the release. “Every effort is made by investigators to provide answers for the family of the victims. No investigator, whatever the circumstances, wants the cause of a fire to be undetermined.”

Schuller said the two succumbed to acute carbon monoxide poisoning while trying to escape the fire.

Darlene, 83, was “almost to the front door and overcame, she slumped against the wall,” Schuller said. About 10 feet behind her, in the kitchen, was where 79-year-old Phil’s body was found.

The preliminary cause (which wasn’t expected to change) of the poisoning was “due to the breathing of products of combustion due to the house fire,” Schuller said.

“It only takes a couple breaths of hot toxic gas and it stops you,” he said.

Though he didn’t know them personally, Schuller said he did know their family.

“They were really well respected and loved and liked,” he said of the Skellys, saying their deaths were “terribly said.”

Payette Fire Chief Steve Castenada said the house was fully “involved” when fire crews arrived at the house, which was in the 100 block of South 19th Street.

Entering the structure at that time would have put the firefighters’ lives at risk, so they were only able to use “defensive tactics at the beginning of the fire till we were able to make entry.”

It took about an hour to get under control, he said. However, the structure was a total loss.

It is believed that there were three to four dogs that also died in the fire.

The only responding agency, according to the chief, was Payette. The department responded with two engines, a rehab unit, a light rescue unit and three duty rigs, Castenada said. There were 13 personnel on scene, he said.

Getting to know Phil and Darlene

In the local community, Phil was well-known for One Hour Modernizing, a local dry cleaner he started with his father in Caldwell in 1967. The business branched out to Payette in 1967, and eventually another shop was opened in Ontario, according to Phil’s brother, Rick Skelly.

After he sold the dry cleaning plant, Phil went into the real estate business for many years as a Realtor having worked at Tri-Cities Realty in Fruitland.

Realtor Larry Wilson, who worked with Phil often over the years, said Phil was a “straight-up guy to work with and a knowledgeable realtor, too.”

“He was one of those kinda guys you could almost basically do business with a handshake, that’s just the way he was,” Wilson said. “That’s the way everybody oughta be.”

Each of them touched many lives, Rick Skelly said.

While Phil wowed colleagues with his real estate ventures, Darlene was working on creating a lasting impression of her own — with artwork.

“Dar was quite a painter, a beautiful painter,” her sister-in law Carol Dorman said.

She said Darlene painted everything and was “very talented.”

She still has a painting of one of her flowers in her bedroom.

She said Darlene’s daughter, who lives across the street from the Skellys, was working Thursday to salvage a bunch of paintings that were in the garage during the house fire. Some of them were water damaged, and efforts were being made to get them dried out.

Calling their death a real tragedy, Rick Skelly reflected back on his relationship with his older brother.

“He was my hero,” Rick said of Phil.

Ten years his senior, Phil was a tremendous athlete, Rick Skelly said. He graduated Caldwell High School in 1957 after playing four years for the team.

The younger brother said he can vividly recall shooting hoops at an old barn with him, and how good he was at underhand shots.

Krekeler can also recall sports being a top priority in her father’s life, saying he was a Dallas Cowboys fan, and being weaned watching them, she is, too. He had a special relationship with her son, Kyle, talking with him three times a week about baseball, football and anything related to Boise State University.

Investigation was a ‘top priority’

Payette Fire worked with the Idaho State Fire Marshal on the investigation.

Calling the event tragic, Knute Sandahl, state fire marshal, said these events are hard on firefighters.

“We prepare ourselves for things like this, but when actually doing it, it takes a physical and emotional toll on the firefighters,” he said. “They are always asking, ‘Could we have done something different?’”

“Fires involving fatalities are especially difficult and receive top priority,” Sandahl said in the release. “Every effort is made by investigators to provide answers for the family of the victims. No investigator, whatever the circumstances, wants the cause of a fire to be undetermined.”

Shortly after several 911 calls reporting the fire, firefighters arrived to the Skellys’ house Jan. 2 in the 100 block South 19th Street. However, the “magnitude of the fire” made it impractical for the firefighters to enter the home.

Although smoke detectors were reported to be present, investigators were unable to find any to determine whether they sounded.

Sandahl urges citizens to install and regularly check smoke alarms.

Hydrant issue causes emergency meeting

Even if firefighters had been able to gain entry, the hydrant nearest the Skellys’ home was not working at the time they arrived.

The morning of the fire, next-door neighbor Eric Saenz said the fire hydrant located at the corner of his lot (on First Avenue South) failed to produce water when firefighters hooked up to it. The hydrant’s failure forced the responders to go to a hydrant farther away.

Castenada confirmed this fact in an interview Jan. 4, saying he believed there was an issue with that hydrant.

“So they [the firefighters] did what they are trained to do, they grabbed the next hydrant,” he said.

Castenada couldn’t say for certain how far away the next hydrant was, but estimated it at about two blocks.

According to Saenz, a firefighter on the scene told him that the hydrant had been frozen, but Saenz said he believed that the hydrant had also failed when it was tested last year.

Although water department officials had yet to confirm the cause of the hydrant’s failure on Jan. 2, Mary Cordova, coordinator for the City of Payette, said in a phone interview on Jan. 4 that the hydrant on First Avenue South “absolutely” did not fail when tested last year.

Saenz and other residents contacted Payette City Hall to request an emergency meeting of the City Council concerning the hydrant’s failure.

Hearing those concerns, city officials decided to hold a special meeting Monday night.

Payette Mayor Jeff Williams, who knew the victims, said “As someone who worked in the same profession as the victims; my family, the Payette Fire Department, and the entire Payette community, are profoundly saddened by this heartbreaking incident.”

In addressing concerns, about the hydrants, Williams noted that there are more than 350 hydrants in the community, which are flow-tested and maintained annually.

It is his opinion, he said, winter months put “extraordinary strains on our firefighters due to more hazardous conditions in the process of getting to the fire(s), unforeseen frozen water supplies, increased risk of injury and dehydration.”

“In this particular incidence, our emergency responders did an excellent job.”

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