Owner of burned funeral home: 'I'm sorry we couldn't get the bodies out'

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - The owner of a funeral home that caught fire last week says he's sorry they couldn't save the bodies inside when the four-alarm fire broke out.

The remains of three people were inside the Lyerly Funeral Home when the caught fire on Friday afternoon; a pair of sisters who died on the same day and the ashes of Korean War veteran.

Investigators were out at the scene of the fire on Saturday and assessed the structural integrity of the building to determine what additional resources would be needed to safely enter the structure and begin a complete investigation.

"As the investigation proceeds, crews are making every effort to salvage items within the building that were not damaged by the fire." Salisbury Fire Department Battalion Chief Morris told WBTV. "The Lyerly family remains in our thoughts and prayers as we continue to work through the remainder of the investigation."

Salisbury Fire Marshal Terry Smith has identified the cause of the fire as accidental due to failure of a furnace system located in a mechanical room.

Funeral director J. Brent Lyerly told WBTV on Friday that the company's furnace was turned on Friday morning because the temperatures were low and it was chilly. The staff left to go to lunch and came back to find thick smoke and was barely able to get out of the building.

Staff members were able to get out of the building safely, but were unable to save the bodies of 91-year-old Effie Leazer Stiller and 84-year-old Marie Elma Leazer Miller, sisters who both died last Wednesday.

The remains of  Korean War vet Charles Benson were also inside the building during the fire.

"I'm so sorry that we were not able to get the bodies out, the two sisters and the war veteran, but the smoke was just too intense, it was just too dangerous," Lyerly told WBTV. "The families have been super, very understanding and willing to work with us."

Family members for the sisters were able to hold services on Saturday, but Benson's family says they will wait until his urn is recovered from the building.

"God has been good to us and that isn't changing," Lyerly said. "I believe this fire to be the Lord's will and we will go from here.  It's unusual for a funeral home to burn, but we're a business like any other and those things happen."

He says the company, which has been in business since 1964, will rebuild and he expects it to be something even better than before; something the community can be proud of.

Lyerly's Funeral home is still performing services, but Lyerly says the company's records were all lost in the fire.

"The response from the community has been overwhelming.  The calls, the comments on line, just all the things people have said," Lyerly said. "I was reading some of them last night, just by myself, and I broke down and cried.  I guess I needed to do that."

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