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Elderly Missouri man dies with wife in fire after refusing to leave her behind

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An elderly Missouri man died with his wife in a house fire Thursday after he refused to escape to safety without her.

Dispatchers told Kenneth Zerr to flee his New Melle home that was quickly becoming consumed by flames, but he opted to stay inside to find his wife, Phyllis, the couple’s son told KSDK.

“The dispatch told my father to come out of the house and my father said, ‘I’m not leaving my wife’ and stayed with her. Until the end,” Andy Zerr said as he fought back tears.

Phyllis had fallen from her wheelchair onto the floor of their master bedroom, New Melle Fire Chief Dan Casey told CBS. When Kenneth couldn’t help her up, he stuffed towels under the door in an attempt to keep out the smoke.

Fire officials had entered the Tall Cedar Court home to rescue the couple, both 84, and made it into the back bedroom, but were blocked from the couple by the rapidly growing inferno, the New Melle Fire Department said.

The floor began collapsing and conditions deteriorated, forcing firefighters to flee the building, officials said. They re-started the rescue, battling high heat and zero visibility, and were finally able to reach the Zerrs, but by that time it had been too late.

The couple were found dead in the bathroom.

Andy remembered his parents as “salt of the earth.”

The Zerr home after the fire.
The inferno was so strong it forced firefighters to retreat before they could reach the couple.

The Zerr home after the fire.
Kenneth told dispatchers he wouldn’t leave the house without Phyllis.

“It’s a tragedy, kind of a tragic love story,” Casey said. “He could have definitely gotten out. The family knows he could have gotten out, but he was going to stay with her.”

The couple, who leave behind three children and several grandchildren, celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary in September. Kenneth celebrated his 84th birthday just two days before the deadly fire.

“Everybody wanted to be like them and everybody wanted to be with them,” Andy said. “My mom and dad were salt of the earth. They will be dearly missed. They were a pillar of the community. They were our rocks. They were our foundation. They were our wisdom.”

Officials are still investigating what sparked the massive blaze, but suspect it was started by an appliance in the basement.

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