HARMONY — Sheldon Woodard, 71, was working on the exhaust system of a 1997 Mercury Grand Marquis in his garage Tuesday night when he heard a strange noise and then saw flames shooting out the car’s windows.

He was stunned — as a mechanic he had removed hundreds of catalytic converters in his lifetime — and tried to push the car out of the building. That’s when the flames apparently caught an oxygen cylinder and exploded, blowing the roof off the garage.

What happened next is a blur, Woodard said Wednesday morning as he stood next to a stretch of blackened rubble that was once the garage.

His daughter, Lou-Ann Woodard-Burgess, knows the chain of events, though. She said a family friend, Stacy Gourley, was visiting. He ran out and pulled Woodard away from the blaze.

“If Stacy wasn’t here, we don’t know what we would have done,” she said.

Woodard was burned on the side of his face, and the area below his left eye is swollen. But he said it’s the loss of what was inside the garage that hurts him the most.

“You couldn’t buy what was in there,” he said.

In addition to two cars and two new four-wheelers, he lost a plow truck owned by his son-in-law who died from cancer a few years ago. A 1950 tractor is charred. He lost five large tool boxes, filled with tools he collected throughout his lifetime: from when he served in the Army, worked as a mechanic in Dexter, and worked for 33 years at Hardwood Products Co. in Guilford.

“That’s my life right there,” he said.

He didn’t know the value of all the items inside the garage at 86 Brown Road, but he said the tools were probably worth around $40,000. The 32- by 68-foot, one-story building was insured, but the contents were not.

The loss will also be felt by Woodard’s family, who often used the garage for their own projects. Woodard’s 17-year-old grandson, also named Sheldon, said he grew up working in the garage. He built race cars there and fixed up trucks. He had his own work bench.

The fire hasn’t become real yet, he said. “It seems like a dream.”

The elder Woodard said he is thankful no one was seriously hurt and that firefighters saved the nearby house, though the blaze was so hot that it melted the siding and broke windows.

“I thought the house was gone,” he said.

The heat also melted parts of several vehicles parked near the garage.

Though he said he’s grateful firefighters saved the house, Woodard questioned what happened with the emergency response system, because Harmony firefighters were not first to respond.

His wife, Donna, was not able to call 911 because the fire cut the electricity to the house. Woodard-Burgess lives on the property and also lost power in her home. It was the neighbors who finally called 911.

Woodard-Burgess is a firefighter on the Harmony Fire Department and could see the fire happening in front of her, but she never received a radio call to respond, she said.

Firefighters from the neighboring town of Cambridge were the first to arrive on scene, she said, and they sprayed water on the house to prevent it from catching fire. It appears Harmony firefighters learned about the blaze by word of mouth, she said.

Somerset County Communications Director Michael Smith reviewed the emergency recording on Wednesday and said the 911 call came into the dispatch center at 7:10 p.m. Harmony fire and rescue personnel were radioed at 7:11 p.m. to respond, and Cambridge and Athens firefighters were toned out a couple minutes later.

At 7:15 p.m., Harmony Assistant Fire Chief Brian Bagley radioed back to dispatchers that he had heard the Cambridge and Athens tones but not the one for Harmony. He asked for a second tone for Harmony firefighters, and it was sent out immediately. Bagley responded that he had heard it and asked for the tone to go out one more time, which it was.

Smith said the communications center can radio for help, but there’s no guarantee that with a volunteer department there will be enough people nearby to respond.

There is no recording of who got to the scene first, because neither Cambridge nor Harmony responders radioed to say they had arrived, Smith said. Cambridge did radio two minutes before Harmony to say a Cambridge firetruck was en route, however.

The first instance of a Harmony firefighter radioing to others at the scene about where to put the firetrucks was recorded at 7:27 p.m.

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

[email protected]

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