PUNXSUTAWNEY — Carol Stephens, one of Rose Setree’s caretakers, had arrived at Rose’s apartment above the New Anchor Inn Nov. 7 to begin her 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift.
Rose said she had gone to bed around 10:30 p.m. after a busy day that included attending church and going to the grocery store.
“Sabrina (another one of Rose’s caretakers) had given a report, and she had left, so I just checked on Rose, turned the lights on and then I was watching the news,” Carol recalled this week. “But I looked up and smelled plastic burning.
“I checked the little heater, but it was OK, but as I looked through, I saw hazy smoke,” Carol said. “By the time I went to go for Rose, there was a lot of smoke in her room.
“She was in a deep sleep, and she’s hard of hearing,” she said. “I just put my hand on her shoulder and said, ‘I think you’d better get awake; we might have to leave.’”
“She said, ‘I can’t find you,’ and I said, ‘I can’t find you, either,’” Rose recalled. “I dream about it all the time (now).”
There was no time to call 911 or Rose’s son, Dave Setree, the restaurant’s owner. There was no time to collect Rose’s glasses, cane or her hearing aid, as billows of black smoke rolled through the kitchen.
There was no time for shoes, either.
“God said, ‘No shoes,’” Carol said. “I just grabbed her up, and we went flying out the door. She’s 86, so we didn’t fly too fast.”
“I came out in my PJs,” Rose said.
Rose had tissues in her hand to cover her face from the smoke, Carol said. As they looked toward their escape route — the stairs out of the apartment — they saw the first step on the way down, but none of the rest, which were obscured by the smoke.
“She (Rose) sort of paused about midway down, and I knew I couldn’t look back,” she said. “We just kept on going.”
• • •
The fire in the early hours of Nov. 15 all but destroyed a Punxsy landmark that has been a part of the community for almost 70 years, but the family matriarch who has seen much of its history was saved.
This week, state police said they were unable to determine the cause of the fire at the New Anchor Inn, along Route 310 in Young Township.
Today, Rose has been spending time hemming some of her new clothes — all her other clothes were destroyed in the fire, “and did she have clothes,” Dave said — and pondering just what has happened in the span of almost two weeks ago.
“When I look out, it’s not nice,” she said of looking out the window of the home of Dave and his wife, Vickie, and seeing the remnants of not only the restaurant she and her late husband, Charles (Chuck), built, but the home where the couple raised its five children: Judy, Roz, Butch (Chuck Jr.) Dave and Brian.
The daughter of Italian immigrants, Rose was born in America and made her own potato chips, hundreds of bags of potato chips, and delivered them herself in a 1929 Dodge panel truck. That’s how she met Chuck, at the Cozy Nook Grocery Store.
She lived in the house where Dave and Vickie now reside — the original Anchor Inn, across the street from the New Anchor Inn — until 1945, when she married Chuck.
During World War II, she worked in Buffalo, N.Y., delivering airplane parts. She and Chuck returned to this area after the war, married and opened the Big Run Inn. After selling that business, the Setrees moved to Arizona, but returned in 1953 when Rose’s father decided to sell the Anchor Inn.
In 1953, Rose and Chuck opened the New Anchor Inn.
Her favorite part of the business? “The people,” she said. “I met so many people, and I loved to work.”
• • •
Carol serves as a caregiver with an independent group,
but she also works part-time with InHome Solutions. She has worked for Rose and the Setrees for about five years.
Linda Carol, an RN who supervises Rose’s five caregivers, always reminds them of their primary charge, Carol said.
“Linda says, ‘Our job is to keep Rose safe, no matter what happens,’” Carol said. “I look back now, and she reiterated that twice, sometimes three times.”
Rose escaped the fire without her glasses, cane or hearing aid, but Carol was quick to realize her keys were on a table on the way out the door. Her car would be from where Rose watched the fire.
“She said, ‘You stay right in here,’ and she took off her coat and put it on me,” Rose said.
Carol flagged down a passing vehicle to call for help, but the driver didn’t have a phone. Instead, she drove down to Dave and Vickie’s house, where she laid on the horn.
By this time, it was around 12:01 a.m., Dave recalled, saying he heard the sound of Carol’s car horn, and looked toward the restaurant to see smoke pouring out of it.
“I thought, ‘Why’s she sitting in the car?’” Vickie said when she saw Carol in her car. “But my mind couldn’t put it together. It’s such a shock to all of us.”
Despite the temperatures that were in the upper 20s that morning, Rose declined offers to come indoors from the cold.
“She said, ‘Do you want to come in?’ I said, ‘No. I want to watch all this,’” Rose said.
Dave added, “I think she thought they would put it out, so she could go home.”
• • •
Firefighters were able to save some of the photos and business records from the restaurant, as well as some of the 50 or more photo albums Rose kept. She had a photo album for every one of her children and grandchildren, as well as a family history that was just a bit charred in the fire.
The New Anchor Inn was, of course, a common gathering place for the Setree family for years, not only because of its ample space, but because it had been in the family for years. It was the site of Thanksgiving, Christmas and other notable family events.
“I dream about that,” Rose said.
Dave said he recalls people, customers, and times such as when he and the staff served dinner for reservists preparing to deploy for the first war in the Persian Gulf, or when he, Vickie and others stayed up late following Punxsy’s flood of 1996, making dozens upon dozens of pizzas for flood victims and rescue workers, “because nobody had any power.”
Dave said he’s waiting to see what happens next.
“Obviously, this has been a life-changing thing, but it’s a new epoch, a new era,” he said. “I’m a little bit excited to see what God has in store next. That’s what I’m totally focused on: What God wants to do.”
This year, the family will gather for Thanksgiving and Christmas at the homes of different family members, adjusting to a new holiday experience away from the familiar surroundings of the inn.
“The thing was, it’s almost trite to say that it was just a building. We got Mom out, and some have often said the Anchor was the centerpiece of the family. But we’re starting to really see, the family was the center all along.”
• • •
Carol’s family didn’t know that she had planned to stay with Rose through her entire shift, but around 3 a.m. via Facebook, one of her daughters, Melanie, learned the truth: The New Anchor Inn was in flames.
“She knew I was working there, but she couldn’t get a hold of me,” Carol said, adding that her cell phone was in a bag of belongings that also burned in the fire. But she said, “When I think about what I lost, it’s nothing compared to what Rose lost.”
Carol and Rose still talk about that night.
“She always says, ‘We made it, didn’t we?’” Rose said. “We just prayed. I did a lot of praying. I read that Bible every night, every chance I got, and I still pray and thank God for everything He did for us.”
Carol also recalled when things finally settled down a bit that morning, and she came to Rose once more.
“She took my hands in her hands and said, ‘Carol, is that you?’ I said yes, and she said, ‘How are you, honey? You saved my life.’ I just wanted to cry then, too.”
Carol shrugs off the term “hero,” even though her answering machine has become filled with messages referring to her as one, and she says she’s not the only one who would have performed the same actions.
“I know those other girls would do the same thing,” she said about her fellow caregivers. “It’s just something. I believe God gives you the strength to do what you’ve got to do.”