Heroes, tragedies and losses


Within seconds, Electra Churchill dialed 911 for help. She was trapped in the structure that exploded and burst into flames in the Timber Ridge Ranch subdivision on Friday. She heroically called dispatchers to send help to rescue her and the love of her life, Fred Phillips, who had also been in the structure before the blast.

Pagosa Country was shaken both literally and figuratively; for miles, people heard the explosion and felt their homes rock.

There are times when a dispatcher takes a 911 call that they have the solemn honor and great burden of listening to the last words of the dying as a part of their job description. And so it was on Friday night.

That dispatcher also has the tremendous responsibility of directing the other first responders. Pages went out quickly for emergency personnel and there were a lot of heroes who came to the rescue.

Bystanders near the explosion rushed to the scene and pulled Fred from the fire. Although he suffered great trauma and severe burns, he informed them that Electra was still in the structure.

Pagosa Fire Protection District firefighters, Upper Pine River Fire District firefighters, Pagosa Springs Medical Center EMS personnel, Archuleta County sheriff’s deputies and Pagosa Springs Police Department officers began arriving and rescue efforts were underway within minutes of Electra’s and others’ 911 calls.

Heroic efforts were made to fight the flames and to find Electra in the collapsed structure and debris. However, as the tragedy unfolded, it became clear that the call Electra made for help was most likely some of her final words.

Heroic words.

Fred was transported to Pagosa Springs Medical Center, where emergency room doctors and staff continued lifesaving efforts.

He was later transferred into the hands of the Classic Air Medical team and was flown to Swedish Medical Center in critical condition.

The explosion and fire claimed Electra’s life and critically injured the love of her life, Fred. Our community mourns for the tragic loss of this beautiful, caring and giving lady.

Electra and Fred blessed numerous charities and worthwhile causes in the communities they selflessly supported.

On Tuesday, Fred’s daughter Alexa wrote: “Electra was such a kind spirit that loved life to the fullest. She was an avid athlete; she and Fred loved biking … they’d ride 16 miles a day. Electra loved animals and never turned away a stray. She was with Fred for 25 years. He was the love of her life. She was loved dearly by her family and friends and will be missed sorely.”

The loss of Electra has been excruciatingly devastating to our first responders and our community.

For our emergency personnel, there is sometimes little or no break between calls. Early afternoon on Tuesday, another page went out for a man who was hit by a vehicle while riding his bicycle.

Once again, most of the above-mentioned agencies rushed to his side. Marcel Barel, 88, of Pagosa Springs, was transported to Colorado Springs Memorial Central Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries that night.

Marcel was featured in an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2014 before moving to Pagosa Springs.

The article describes Marcel’s love of the mountains as well as skiing and hiking at high altitude.

“But as a boy in Switzerland, he was sickly and suffered from asthma. The Alps near St. Moritz not only framed the setting of his youth, but hiking and back-country skiing there strengthened his lungs and started his lifelong love affair with the mountains. That alpine admiration led him to the United States, the Sierra Nevada’s Yosemite Valley, a working friendship with renowned photographer Ansel Adams, and finally to a fledgling ski resort in Southern Nevada called Lee Canyon,” the article reads.

As a young man, Marcel was Adams’ assistant and he had the honor of lugging tripods in the Sierras and helping the photographer out with his work.

After moving to Nevada, he spent 45 years on the slopes and in the hills. As a ski school instructor, he taught thousands of youngsters and grown-ups to ski.

For decades, he assisted his neighbors with cutting firewood and plowing their driveways.

According to the article, he retired to Pagosa Springs with his wife in 2014.

“As a skier Marcel Barel knows every season must come to an end. But what a run it’s been for this mountain man,” the article concludes.

When dispatchers, firefighters, law enforcement and other emergency personnel are on the job, their workday hinges on matters of life and death. These heroic men and women put their own safety at risk to protect ours. They leave the house every day not knowing if they will return.

Working in emergency services can be a heavy burden to bear; outcomes, such as the loss of Electra and Marcel, have a huge emotional impact on those who worked the incidents from the initial 911 calls to Archuleta County Combined Dispatch to Coroner Brandon Bishop making the call to the family of Electra to inform them of her unfathomable passing and to our coroner advocates who assisted in the aftermath.

There is no doubt that our first responders care deeply about this community, take their duties very seriously and are extremely proud of their contribution to public safety.

In the aftermath of this past week’s tragedies, the heroes from these agencies, who came together with exemplary teamwork, are processing the tragedy and coming to terms with the unfortunate outcome. Thankfully, there are resources in the form of peer support counselors to help those in command staff and those on the front lines.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Electra and Fred, Renee and Marcel, their loved ones and our many heroes and their support teams.

Terri Lynn Oldham House