Jason DiVirgilio of Strafford stands outside the lake house he rented until it was gutted by fire on Christmas night. DiVirgilio found himself at another fire scene Saturday morning at Robert Sager's home on Bow Lake's Long Island. He's being hailed a hero for using a ladder to help rescue Sager. (JASON SCHREIBER PHOTO)
Man saves Polaroid philanthropist from Strafford inferno
STRAFFORD — Jason DiVirgilio lost everything when his lake house rental was gutted by a fire on Christmas night, and now he's being hailed a hero for rescuing well-known philanthropist and Polaroid Chairman Robert Sager from a raging inferno early Saturday.
"I would never wish this time of stress and anguish on anyone. It's absolutely terrifying," said DiVirgilio, 32, a lifelong Strafford resident.
DiVirgilio was sound asleep when he got a panicked call from Sager's daughter around 4 a.m. Saturday. She and her brother and his friend were staying at Sager's recently renovated house on Bow Lake's Long Island when they heard fire alarms and smelled smoke.
DiVirgilio maintains the property for the Sagers, and helped renovate the two-story, steel-frame structure with walls made of large sliding glass panels.
DiVirgilio told Sager's daughter to call 911 and that he'd be right there.
He jumped into his SUV and raced toward the island.
"As I drove by I could see a ball of fire shooting out of the house and I knew it wasn't good," said DiVirgilio, who works for Whitcher Builders in Strafford.
Luckily, an access road had been plowed on the frozen lake a week earlier so he was able to drive out to the island.
"When I got there the house was completely involved. It was just a giant blazing inferno. Fire was blowing out every hole in the house," he said.
DiVirgilio found Sager's son and a friend in the front yard.
His daughter had made it safely to an outbuilding on the island. But Sager was trapped on the porch of the second floor, surrounded by flames.
DiVirgilio yelled to Sager to jump, but it appeared Sager couldn't bring himself to jump.
DiVirgilio then remembered the 16-foot ladder on the other side of the house, left behind after some recently completed renovations.
The ladder wasn't quite long enough to reach Sager, but it was all DiVirgilio had.
"I scrambled to get it up to him," he said.
With the flames licking at him, Sager crawled through the fire, blindly stuck his leg over the edge of the porch and felt around for the top rung.
DiVirgilio held the ladder while Sager climbed down. When he made it about three-fourths of the way down, DiVirgilio said the fire was just too intense and he had no choice but to pull the ladder away and let it drop to the ground.
"I knew we were going to get burned at that point," he said.
Once safely on the ground, DiVirgilio, Sager and the others left the island in his SUV and made it to shore around the same time that firefighters and ambulance crews were arriving.
He said it appeared Sager suffered minor burns.
Strafford Fire Capt. David Hartranft said the cause of the blaze remains under investigation by the state Fire Marshal's Office.
He said an improperly extinguished fire in a wood-burning fireplace is one possibility.
Hartranft said there was little firefighters could do to save the home.
Firefighters used a small John Deere Gator all-terrain vehicle and two snowmobiles to reach the house.
"We determined that it really wasn't worth risking personnel and apparatus on the ice," he said.
Firefighters were able to save an outbuilding that houses a sauna, he said.
Katherine Soiett, who works at nearby Sheilah's Deli and Market, knows the Sagers from their visits to the market during the summer months.
"They're very nice and very humble ... They do a lot to help this town. They'd take the shirt off their back for anybody," she said.