Family rescued from burning home, firefighters recount hazards

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Charred remains: The family living at 7 Ayre Dr. in McKownville lost all of their worldly goods in Sunday’s fire, but their lives were saved.

GUILDERLAND — “We can’t wait to see the boys tomorrow,” said Westmere Elementary School Principal Beth Bini

Tyler and Aidan Morrissey, ages 5 and 6, were released from Albany Medical Center Hospital Monday evening, after losing their McKownville home and everything in it to a fire early Sunday morning. They were scheduled to return to school on Thursday for the first time since the fire. 

Michael Fosmire, 6, their cousin, was also in the home at 7 Ayre Dr. at the time the house burned. He is a first-grader at Altamont Elementary School. Principal Peter Brabant said that he is an “amazing boy, very outgoing, very verbal.” 

Fosmire is still in the hospital, in the Clark Burn Center of Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, as are his brother, Giovanni Felix, age 4; his grandmother, Christine Sawyer, 51; and his uncle, Daniel Morrissey, 40, the father of the two Morrissey boys. 

As of Friday, the conditions of Morrissey and Felix have been upgraded from critical to fair.

Remaining in critical condition are Christine Sawyer, 51, and her older grandson, Michael Fosmire, 6, who is a student at Altamont Elementary School.

Brother and sister, Morrissey and Sawyer were both living in the home at the time of the fire, with his two sons and her two grandsons, according to family friend and McKownville firefighter Mark Malone. Sawyer’s daughter, Amanda Sawyer, who is in her mid-20s and the mother of Fosmire and Felix, was living there as well, Malone said, but was not at home at the time of the fire. 

The family had suffered three deaths in the last three years. Morrissey and Sawyer’s mother, Frances Morrissey — listed as the owner of the home — died in January 2015 after a long illness. Tricia Morrissey, wife of Daniel and mother of Tyler and Aidan, died in September 2014 at age 36. And Jaclyn Morrissey, sister of Daniel Morrissey and Christine Sawyer, died in 2013 at age 34.

“The family was already under a lot of crisis and duress,” said Malone, adding that he understood the family members had moved in together to “join forces” and to share childcare and expenses. 

Malone said that the two adults and two children who are still hospitalized have been sedated for several days for smoke inhalation, and that there are plans for hyperbaric oxygen treatments. 

The two Morrissey boys are staying with their aunt in Colonie for now. Bini explained that, because their home was destroyed in a fire, the boys are by law free to continue at Westmere — where Tyler is in kindergarten and Aidan is in first grade — regardless of where they are living.

Bini said that school officials are “very supportive of the family, and ready for the boys to come back.” It’s also very important for the boys, she said, to “have school as a constant.” 

She noted that, on Monday morning, as the school bus that drives along Ayre Drive every day pulled into the school lot, she and a school psychologist got on board to talk with the children about what had happened — that there had been a fire, but that everyone had gotten out and that Tyler and Aidan would be back at school. 

Bini said that neighbors had already rallied to help the family and had already purchased new backpacks, lunchboxes, and school supplies for the Morrissey boys’ return. 

First on the scene 

Firefighter Cameron Becker, 22, was first on the scene. He lives just streets away, and had gotten home only a few minutes earlier, from a long shift including overtime at his job as a dispatcher for the Albany Police Department. “It took me less than 30 seconds to get back in the truck,” he estimated. 

Becker’s father is the chief of the McKownville Fire Department, Russ Becker. The younger Becker is a lieutenant with the North Bethlehem Fire Department. That night was unusual: Cameron Becker’s chief was away, so he had one of the chief’s cars. That meant that, instead of driving to North Bethlehem and getting on a truck, he could drive straight to the fire. 

“It took me probably two minutes from the time of the call to when I arrived on scene,” he said. “I like to think that everything aligned perfectly.” He had not even had time to put on his fire gear. 

When he got there, flames at least 25 feet high were coming from the south side of the house, and the house was fully involved. 

He saw two kids on the front lawn, “sitting there next to the dog, crying.” The kids said that there were still people inside. 

Several Guilderland police officers had arrived by then, and Becker and a Guilderland officer loaded the two children and the dog into a police car. 

Becker then went to the home’s front door but was able to open it only a couple of inches before encountering “a lot of resistance.” He figured “it must be a body, maybe somebody trying to get out, who collapsed,” he recalled. 

“That was when I felt kind of helpless.” 

The side door — which, it turned out, the family was using as their main point of entry — was inaccessible because of the heavy flames. 

Becker said he stepped back a few feet to look at the scene again, to get the big picture, and that was when he heard the assistant fire chief of the McKnowville Fire Department, Michael Costabile, yelling, “Cameron! Cameron!” 

At the other side of the house — the north side, the side facing the neighboring house just a few feet away — Costabile had pulled a lawn chair over to a window and gotten inside. 

“Originally he only saw the father and was going to reach in and pull him out,” Becker said. “That’s when he saw the child underneath him.”  

Getting everyone out 

Costabile told The Enterprise that the child wasn’t really under the man but near him, and that the father’s hands were outstretched toward him. The child was unconscious, and the father was in an altered state, a kind of daze. 

“We pulled the father out,” Becker said. “Mike picked the kid off the ground and handed him to me. I don’t remember what I did with the child because — adrenaline, you know? I must have handed him off to a police officer.” 

That was when Becker spotted the aunt. “She was sitting at the windowsill, curled up in a ball, with her head inside the hood of her sweatshirt. She was not aware at all.”     

Several police officers helped, and the aunt was pulled from the house. 

Another child was located lying on the ground in between the two houses; that child was in an altered state, Costabile said. 

Piecing together what happened 

There were pieces of the puzzle that each of the two men needed to share with the other before they could start to piece together what had happened. 

For instance, Costabile had not seen the two kids on the front lawn — he hadn’t arrived until after they were in the police car — and so he only learned about them a few minutes later, when Becker told him. Becker had not seen that the side window — the one Costabile went through — had been open when Costabile got back there. 

The bottom of the window, Becker said, was at about a man’s chest height, and the oldest child was, he believed, 6. It didn’t seem likely that the children got out by themselves. 

Becker said, “The front door: not accessible. The side door: no way,” since that was where the fire was raging.  

What the two firefighters believe happened is that Morrissey first took the two children outside to the lawn, and that he then went back inside. He brought out the third child, the one lying on the ground between the houses. He was trying to get the fourth child out when he became very dazed and could no longer function in the smoke. 


The Enterprise — Michael Koff
The fire at 7 Ayre Drive was contained as seven volunteer companies came to the rescue so that neighboring homes weren’t damaged.


Fighting the fire 

It was only after the rescue operation was finished that Becker had a chance to go back to the chief’s car, move it further from the scene so as not to block the fire trucks’ access, and finally put on his gear. 

He went back to the scene, and Costabile, who was in command of the fire, appointed him as the operations officer, or the person who makes the decisions about how to put out the fire. That surprised Becker, who said that, in his experience, the operations officer was usually a chief. 

Becker said he thanked Costabile later for appointing him, because it forced him to step back and “make a list of what needed to be accomplished,” rather than panicking. 

After the rescue was completed, efforts to fight the fire were “a completely exterior operation,” Costabile said. “After we came out, nobody went in.” 

Costabile said there had been at least seven fire departments on scene, and that it was a tremendous team effort. He pointed out that all the firefighters involved were volunteers. “Nobody was getting paid,” he said. 

The aftermath

Becker was just 10 when his dad became a firefighter. “So I kind of grew up with the McKownville Fire Department,” he said. 

They had a junior program, he said, but it didn’t start till age 16. North Bethlehem’s program started at age 15, so he joined there “to get that extra year.” He became an interior firefighter at 18, and was elected a lieutenant at 19 and for the next three years. 

“This is the biggest responsibility I’ve had,” he said. 

On Tuesday, he hadn’t quite come to grips with the life-or-death intensity of it yet. 

“The first 10 minutes of that incident were probably the most crucial I’ve ever had,” he said. “We were doing a lot in a short amount of time.

“Today’s Tuesday, and it’s just, it’s pretty much right before I go to bed, I listen to the audio again, or I read some accounts of it in the media, and go over it in my head.” 

Some people dream of making rescues and pulling people out, he said; it’s not something everybody will ever get an opportunity to do. 

And it’s one he’s not particularly sure he wants to have again, “although of course I would if needed,” he said. 

The house was gutted. Asked if it was a total loss and needed to be torn down, Costabile said that that would be up to the homeowners to decide. 

Captain Daniel P. McNally of the Guilderland Police said on Wednesday that the cause of the fire is still under investigation. He said that they are having difficulty speaking with the adult residents who were home at the time of the fire, and, until that takes place, investigators cannot move forward with their preliminary theories.


The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair
Donations are piling up at the McKownville firehouse as neighbors make donations for the family that lost their home.


The McKownville Fire Department has been accepting donations for the family. 

The firehouse is also accepting other donations and will store them until needed. 

A fund is being set up at Key Bank at 1196 Western Ave. in Guilderland. Trustees of the fund will be Christina DellaCioppa and Rene Schwemmer, who is the Morrissey boys’ maternal grandmother, Malone said.

Updated, Jan. 29, 2016: The conditions of Daniel Morrissey and Giovanni Felix, at the University Medical Hospital in Syracuse, were upgraded Friday.

More Guilderland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.