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Man dies in Thursday house fire near Liberty

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Walter Coates and the fire scene at 1043 Parsonage Road, north of Halifax. / May 12, 2017
A Thursday house fire in the Liberty area claimed the life of Walter Coates, 48, a firearms safety instructor and gun shop owner who was found unconscious inside the home moments before it erupted in flames.

The blaze began around 2 p.m. on Thursday and consumed the brick home at 1043 Parsonage Road amid intense heat and smoke. It took more than five hours for local firefighters to quell the blaze, and the fire reignited later Thursday evening, prompting firefighters to bring in a ladder truck from the South Boston Fire Department to put it out a second time.

According to Liberty Fire Department chief Randy Fisher, who was the first firefighter to reach the scene, the home was locked and difficult to gain entry to. Initially, smoke billowed out from the basement and upstairs near a chimney. Soon after arriving at the home, Fisher was joined by North Halifax firefighters who brought the first truck to fight the blaze.

“The whole house was fixing to go up,” said Fisher. He and two other firefighters broke through the doors with axes and made their way to a first-floor bedroom where Coates, unconscious, was found. The first person to find him in the bedroom was James Hicks, a professional firefighter in North Carolina and member of the Halifax County emergency services office, said Fisher.

The firefighters dragged the man from the bedroom and outside the brick residence to safety. “Right after we got him out, [the fire] broke loose — the whole attic and roof burned through, about six or seven minutes after we got him out of the house,” said Hicks.

Efforts to resuscitate Coates were unsuccessful. He was declared dead at the scene.

Firefighters with the North Halifax, Liberty, Halifax, Midway and South Boston departments, joined by EMS personnel from North Halifax, the Halifax County Rescue Squad and the county emergency services office, remained on the scene for some five hours before the flames subsided.

Later that night, shortly before 10 p.m., the fire flared back up. This time firefighters called in the ladder truck at the SBVFD to help to extinguish the blaze, which took some four more hours, Fisher said.

The home “is going to be a total loss,” he added. Left undamaged was a small building next to the home that housed Coates Gun Shop.

Authorities have indicated they do not believe foul play was involved in the incident. Coates’ remains have been sent to the medical examiner’s office in Richmond for an autopsy.

The first person to spot the fire was a passerby on U.S. 501-N who saw smoke coming out of the chimney. According to Fisher, the passerby called 911 and also went up to the home to see if anyone was inside. The individual knocked on the door and tried to open it, but found the home was locked.

No cause has yet been identified for the fire, which is under investigation by the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office. Chad Loftis, the county’s emergency services coordinator, said Virginia State Police has also been called in to assist with the case, and the property insurer for the home will also send an investigator.

While authorities do not yet know how the fire started, Loftis said there was no outward sign of flammables that might have caused the intense buildup of heat. What investigators have determined is that three additions were built to the one-and-a-half story home, and “a lot of time when add-ons are made to a home, we have what we call ‘dead spaces’ that can trap heat and smoke for long periods of time,” said Loftis.

The home also “had a lot of dry timbers to it, so it had just a little more fuel than the average home,” he added.

Early indications suggest the fire started in the kitchen area, which was close to the back chimney of the home. “If by chance it started in the kitchen, it could have carried to the upstairs area and the attic space very quickly,” said Loftis. Due to the severity of the damage, it may take some time for investigators to reach a conclusion on how the fire started, and a lab will be analyzing materials from the home in an attempt to yield some clues.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to determine something soon,” said Loftis.

Along with running his gun shop, Coates was a gunsmith and firearms safety instructor in the county. He is survived by his wife, Beth Reese Coates, two daughters and a son and two step-children.

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