Lifelong Peabody resident Keith Harsh, 80, died Friday in a fire at his house. Trisha Oursler has lived next-door to Harsh all of her life.
On Friday, Oursler was taking a break from her job at Pop’s Diner when she had what was unknowingly her final encounter with Harsh.
“We just talked like neighbors do,” she said.
He had just come out of the hardware store after purchasing some dust masks.
“He came over and sat with me awhile,” she said. “I asked what project he was planning to work on now and he said he had some work to do in the attic crawl space. I had done some lawn edging along his curb when I did my mom and dad’s and he thanked me.”
The exchange would prove critical in finding Harsh’s body.
Oursler was home later in the day when she heard her mother call out that Harsh’s house was on fire. Oursler said she ran outside where firefighters were unloading hose and assessing the scene.
“No one seemed to know where Keith was,” she said. “I told them to look into crawl spaces, that he had told me he was going to work in an attic crawl space.”
Peabody fire chief Mark Penner said the first fire truck arrived about three or four minutes after the initial page went out at 4:44 p.m.
“Someone driving down the street had seen smoke and called 911,” he said. “Three of us were at the house, waiting for the truck so we could go in. We assumed he was home and tried to find him right away, but we couldn’t locate him.
“Someone came over to the guys at the truck and told them what Trisha had said about the crawl space so we looked in the basement and attic for crawl space areas, and eventually found a small open hatch leading to the attic,” he said.
Oursler, in the meantime, took off south to the football field at the park, thinking Harsh might have left for the game before the fire started.
“By then people were coming in for the game, but he wasn’t there and no one had seen him,” she said. “I went back home and pretty soon we realized the firemen had found him.”
Penner said the opening to the crawl space was so small firefighters could not get through it wearing their oxygen tanks.
“We couldn’t get in there to search, but we used a thermal imaging camera to detect hot spots and chopped a larger hole through the old lathe and plaster ceiling,” he said. “When the hole was big enough to enter, Matt Litton went in and called out that he’d found him.”
Penner said Litton and Brett O’Dell checked for a pulse and heartbeat, but found nothing.
Penner reported the death to state fire marshal Chris Mercer. Mercer told him to secure the scene and keep everyone away until Mercer arrived in Peabody.
“We taped it off and kept everyone out. By then there was very little smoke,” he said. “We don’t know yet what killed Mr. Harsh. It is my understanding that an autopsy has been done, but we have not been notified about results.”
Penner said that after daylight Saturday morning, the fire flared again.
“Some of the family arrived to begin making arrangements and noticed the house beginning to fill with smoke again,” he said. “We had another truck go out and douse it once more. The insulation is old and smolders like that. The truck was there for several hours, but we had no more trouble.”
Oursler had fond memories of her neighbor.
“He and his family have been over there forever,” she said. “When I was little I would go help him in his garden. If we had things to sell for school fundraisers, Keith and Marilyn were great about buying from me. They were nice people.”