It was Thanksgiving Day in 1949 when a fire tore through a house in the village of Aquashicola, Pa., and forever changed the lives of two young families. John N. Miller, 36, lost his life attempting to rescue two neighborhood children, who also died in the fire. Miller’s heroic actions were brought to the attention of the Hero Fund Commission and he was posthumously awarded the Carnegie Medal in April 1950.
Descendants of both families came together recently to recognize and honor the sacrifice made by Miller, known as “Buddy” to friends and family.
Sixty-six years ago, Miller, his wife Faye, and their children, 2-year-old Elaine and 4-week-old Barry, were living at the home of Faye’s parents on Forest Inn Road, just across the street from Charles Arner, his wife Alice, and their children. The Arner house caught fire and Miller, a World War II veteran, ran to the home. Alfred Arner, 4, and his sister Shirley, 2, were trapped on the second floor of the house, where flames at the top of the stairway blocked egress to the first floor.
Miller entered the house and told Alice he would go upstairs and that she should take the other children out of the home, which she did. Miller covered his head and face with a water-soaked rug and ran upstairs to the second floor.
At one point, Miller’s leg was seen extended through one of the windows on the second floor of the house but when firefighters arrived they were unable to enter, due to deteriorating conditions inside the home. The first and second floors collapsed and Miller, Alfred, and Shirley were found together in the basement. All three perished in the fire.
At Miller’s funeral service the pastor read a Bible verse: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” from John 15:13 — the same verse engraved on the Carnegie Medal.
Miller’s widow Faye received her husband’s medal and an $80 monthly grant that lasted until she married Paul Butler in November 1950. Butler adopted Elaine and Barry.
More recently, Aquashicola fire company member Mike Snyder learned there was nothing that noted Miller’s life-saving efforts on his headstone in Towamensing Cemetery in Palmerton, Pa. Seeking to rectify that, Snyder, other fire department volunteers, and local historians spent several years researching the fire, Miller’s actions and, with the help of others, located Miller’s family members. They requested a Carnegie Hero Fund Commission grave marker, and planned a July 22, 2017 ceremony – hosted jointly by the Aquashicola Volunteer Fire Company and the Palmerton Area Historical Society – where they unveiled the newly ornamented headstone.
Snyder and Rory Koons, President of the Aquashicola fire department, planned the July ceremony. Miller’s children Elaine Shaw and Barry Butler both attended the ceremony, as did Larry Arner, Charles Arner, and Sandy Engle, siblings of Alfred and Shirley.
Tina Marie Decker, the daughter of Barry Butler and his wife Shirley, possesses her grandfather’s Carnegie Medal. Barry said the event was an emotional experience for him and his family.
“The Carnegie Medal is a very important part of my life, my family’s history, and my father’s legacy. It is the one thing I can hold in my hands and feel in my heart a connection to my father. Thank you for making this event, as well as the past, a more vivid part of my life.”
Bronze medallions cast in the likeness of the Carnegie Medal are available to families of deceased awardees (see back cover).
—Susan M. Rizza, case investigator