The flames just kept increasing. It spread to the undercarriage, the tires and wheels to the van. Somehow the brake released and the van started rolling forward, impacted the house and then the flames actually blew the top of the van off. Flames then went to the house. —Christon Hortsman
SANDY — It was a bizarre incident that had many people scratching their heads Thursday.
Police and fire investigators in Sandy were trying to figure out how a parked van caught fire, seemingly rolled uphill, then downhill and bumped into a house — spreading flames to the home's exterior.
The odd incident happened about 11 a.m. near 8800 South and 900 East.
Betty McLeese said she was vacuuming when one of the housing complex's maintenance workers accidentally broke one of her windows.
"I was vacuuming and I heard this loud crack noise, like a gunshot, and I turn off the vacuum and I can hear glass cracking and I followed the noise and it was my back door," she said.
At that point, the worker said he would go get his supervisor to help.
"So I go back in the house and start to vacuum again. The next thing I know, all these people are running around and I'm thinking, 'All this for a broken window? What the hell is going on?'"
What McLeese didn't know was that a 1987 Volkswagen van had caught fire and somehow rolled into her house, miraculously stopping just short of crashing through her door.
McLeese said she grabbed three fire extinguishers from her home, but those weren't enough to put out the flames that spread to the exterior of her condo.
Christon Hortsman, who was walking his dog, was the first to spot the fire coming from the rear of the vehicle and call 911. At first he could just see smoke and tried to put the fire out with water. But just four minutes later, he said he called 911.
"The flames just kept increasing. It spread to the undercarriage, the tires and wheels to the van. Somehow the brake released and the van started rolling forward, impacted the house and then the flames actually blew the top of the van off. Flames then went to the house," he said.
At that point, McLeese said she was hysterical.
"I was screaming, and I felt bad about that. But when your house is on fire, a split second — you have no idea what can happen in just a second, how fast it can go," she said.
Fire crews arrived at the scene quickly and were able to put out the blaze before it spread to the interior of the house. The van was a total loss.
The mystery of how the van caught fire and ended up on McLeese's property was still being investigated Thursday afternoon.
James Belmont, the van's owner who lives a few homes down from McLeese, said he was cleaning his garage and moving his motorcycle and needed to park his van in a stall next to her home.
Belmont said the fire started in the engine bay in the rear of the vehicle.
But the parking stall is on a small uphill grade. How the van started moving and why it didn't roll backward were big questions Thursday. Belmont said he always puts his vehicle in first gear when he parks it. He believes the electrical fire may have engaged the starter.
Hortsmon said the van moved about 1 mph up the incline, and stopped right in front of the woman's house after it went downhill.
"It literally just slowly bumped off of (the condo). Just an odd situation," he said.
A very worried-looking Belmont said he is just glad no one was injured and knows it could have been a lot worse. He said he was not worried about his destroyed van.
"I'm more worried about the house," he said. "I'm just so thankful no one got hurt. We can fix everything else."
Despite her sense of humor about the incident after it was over, McLeese said she wasn't laughing when the fire was burning.
"I'm very unhappy. I've often wondered what it would be like if one of these units caught on fire, since we're all packed in here like sardines and I've worried about it for the four years I've lived here. And you might know mine was the one that catches fire," she said.
"I'm not going to vacuum ever again if that's what happens."
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