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Elgin Fire Chief Cauthen felt sick after leaving fire, died later

Dennis Cauthen woke up in the middle of the night to a call about a house on fire.

Like the Lancaster County fire chief had done countless times in his three decades of volunteer firefighting, Cauthen jumped into action.

He went to Elgin Fire Station off U.S. 521, which he's led for more than a decade, and drove the first engine out to join two other departments at a vacant house fire on 15th Street.

Once there, Cauthen manned the truck, supplying water to help stop the raging fire from spreading to another house a few feet away. He was one of about a dozen firefighters on site around 3 a.m. Tuesday.

It was the last time he would do the job friends say he loved dearly.

Cauthen, 54, died shortly after returning to the Elgin station, Lancaster County Fire Marshal Stephen Blackwelder said. An autopsy was performed Tuesday afternoon, but results were not available.

"It was routine but strenuous work," Blackwelder said of Cauthen's role fighting the fire. "He was operating the pump. It's less strenuous than some roles in the fire, but strenuous nonetheless."

Hugs and tears

Flags flew at half-staff Tuesday morning at the Elgin station as word of Cauthen's death spread through the community. Hugs and tearful embraces were shared outside the station, but fellow firefighters weren't ready to talk about their fallen leader.

"They're raw," Blackwelder said. "This is a huge, sudden loss."

Cauthen carried on a tradition of leading the fire department, following in his father's footsteps.

"Chief Cauthen was deeply rooted in the Elgin community," Blackwelder said. "This is a devastating loss for his family, the department and the community."

While fighting the fire, Cauthen complained of heartburn-like symptoms and stomach pain, his colleagues told Blackwelder. They even stopped on their way back to the station to get him something to drink.

"Then his condition worsened," Blackwelder said. After clearing the scene, crews arrived back at the station about 5:55 a.m. Firefighters called EMS, and Cauthen was taken to Springs Memorial Hospital. He went into cardiac arrest and was pronounced dead around 8 a.m.

Blackwelder wasn't aware of any medical issues for Cauthen, and Joe Brown, who worked with Cauthen for 15 years, said he never heard him complain of pain.

Cauthen served 31 years with the Lancaster County Fire Service. He and his wife, Teresa, own Williams Flooring Carpet One on Main Street in Lancaster. Brown oversees contract sales.

"He was committed to the fire department," Brown said. "He probably would have preferred the fire department over the carpet business. He loved to fight fires."

"He was a big family man," Brown said. "He was a very good guy, and he'll be deeply missed."

Cauthen also leaves behind his mother and father, three children and four grandchildren.

Cauthen was active in his church, St. Luke's United Methodist, and also as a fire instructor.

"He was a good man. A very fine man," Blackwelder said.

'Close to my house'

The vacant house that caught fire before 2:45 a.m. Tuesday was once the home of 77-year-old Brice Catoe, who moved next door about a year ago. He said he called 911 when he woke up in the middle of the night and smelled smoke.

"I'm lucky the firefighters came out to fight the blaze so quickly. The fire was close to my house. They saved at least it and most likely me," Catoe said.

Firefighters took a defensive attack, Blackwelder said. Their primary goal was preventing the fire from spreading.

All that remains of the vacant house are the steps leading up to it and the chimney. The effects of the fire spread to Catoe's house, melting the siding and burning a car parked in the roadway.

"It took a couple hours to put it out. It was burning good," Catoe said. "I'm grateful to the firefighters."

This is the second line-of-duty death for Lancaster County Fire Service employees in about a year. In December, 64-year-old Lt. Dillon C. Denton died after participating in fire training activities.

Funeral arrangements for Cauthen have not been finalized.

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