McMURRAY – The Easter morning fire that claimed the life of longtime Peters Township resident R. Gary McLaughlin, 80, was one of the most emotional fires township fire Chief Dan Coyle has fought in his lengthy career. He knew the victim.
McLaughlin’s son, Michael “Fireman Mike” McLaughlin Sr. was a paid firefighter in the Peters Township Fire Department until his untimely death from cancer a few years ago, and his grandson, Michael McLaughlin Jr., is currently a paid firefighter.
The youngest McLaughlin was in New York for Easter weekend and was unaware of the fire at his grandparents’ house at 2754 Locust Drive. After Coyle called to inform him of the fatal fire, the chief said the youngest McLaughlin immediately returned to Peters Township.
“I’ve done this for 30-some years,” Coyle said. “And every fire you have, whether it’s a fatal or not, it takes an emotional chunk out of you. But, honestly, in my career, this one got to me the worst because of how close I was with the family.”
Coyle worked with the late Michael McLaughlin Sr. in the fire department for more than 25 years, and has worked with Michael McLaughlin Jr. for about eight or nine years. Over that time, Coyle said he attended birthday parties, graduations and was a member of Michael McLaughlin Sr.’s wedding. Gary McLaughlin and Phyllis, his wife of 60 years, always attended the celebrations.
Many of the firefighters knew the family through Michael Sr., known as “Fireman Mike” because he gave numerous fire presentations in area schools, and his son, Michael Jr. Once the fire was under control, Coyle told them who the victim was.
“It was emotional for me, but I have to do my job,” Coyle said a few days after the fire. “We have to do what we have to do.”
He said it’s a fine line for firefighters when there is a fire – their job is to fight the blaze, but also to take into consideration the emotional well-being of the family.
The fire was reported at 6:46 a.m. Sunday. Gary McLaughlin was rescued from the burning home and was taken to Canonsburg General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:40 a.m.
“Once he was in the ambulance, I let some of the other (firefighters) know it was Mike Jr.’s grandfather, and I could see the difference in how people reacted,” Coyle said, adding he has the best-trained people who “know what to do.”
At the time the fire was discovered, Gary McLaughlin, his wife, his oldest son and two of his grandchildren were in the house, said Peters Township police Chief Harry Fruecht. Gary McLaughlin initially escaped the burning house, as did the rest of the family, but for an unknown reason, went back inside to retrieve something and was unable to get back out, Fruecht said. He is also the township’s public safety director.
The cause of the fire is under investigation by the state police fire marshal.
Coyle said firefighters experienced no unusual problems fighting the fire in the one-story brick home. Assisting Peters were firefighters from Upper St. Clair and North Strabane townships.
Gary McLaughlin and his wife were active in the community, including being members of the VFW Post 764 in McMurray. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. She is a member of the women’s auxiliary.
Together, the fire department and the VFW are in the process of establishing the McLaughlin Easter Day Fire Fund.
“Because of Mike Sr.’s and Mike Jr.’s involvement in the fire department, and of Gary’s and Phyllis’ involvement in the VFW,” Coyle said for the reason for the joint effort to establish the fund. Plans have not been completed, but will be announced soon, Coyle said.
Gary McLaughlin was a member of St. Benedict the Abbot Church in Peters Township, where he was a youth teacher and served as an usher for many years. He was also a Cub Scout master and worked for Cyclops and AK Steel.
He is survived by his wife, five children and seven grandchildren.