Searchers believe resident was home
HOMER — Five days after his farmhouse burned to the ground, a massive search for the remains of a missing truck driver ended Wednesday with only more questions.
About 50 firefighters representing more than a dozen departments joined state police investigators for close to five hours at the fire scene southeast of Homer. They sifted through debris, one piece at a time, searching for any bits of evidence that might confirm Jeffrey Ward died in the blaze.
The search yielded only bone fragments, which were turned over to Vermilion County Coroner Peggy Johnson for possible identification.
"They found several pieces that did definitely look like bones," said Homer Fire Chief Don Happ Jr. "We are just crossing our fingers that this is it."
The bones will be examined to determine whether they are human, Johnson said. If so, they'll then be tested for DNA. Ward's brother is traveling to the area to provide a sample, Johnson said.
But even if the bones are determined to be human, Johnson cautioned, there's the possibility that DNA tests won't be able to confirm identity. The fragments are charred, the result of a blaze that completely leveled the single-story farmhouse at 7886 N 200 E Road in Vermilion County.
The case has stumped authorities from the start.
A search of the scene on Saturday, which involved a cadaver dog, also turned up bone fragments. But by Monday, an anthropologist had determined they weren't human but instead likely from a small animal.
So firefighters joined state police and state fire marshal's officials Wednesday morning to resume the search for remains.
"It's been very, very difficult, because this house burned completely," said Milly Santiago, communication manager with the fire marshal's office.
Happ said the house was engulfed in flames — the roof about to collapse — when he arrived first on the scene Friday night. The nearest neighbor, about three miles away, reported the fire after driving to Ward's property to investigate what he was seeing, Happ said.
Officials believe Ward, who lived alone, was home at the time of the fire. His personal vehicles remain at the property, Santiago said, and the last time his cellphone was used was on Friday night. Investigators were able to pinpoint that Ward's phone was inside his home at 10:17 p.m., when it received its last data.
The call for the fire came in at 10:30 p.m., Happ said.
Still, investigators couldn't confirm Ward's whereabouts at the time because there was so little left in a blaze fed by 35 mph wind gusts.
The fire burned so hot, it destroyed a semi-tractor trailer sitting nearby. And what was left of the house collapsed into the basement, leaving nothing of the structure standing above ground except for the concrete foundation, brick chimney, television antenna and concrete back doorsteps.
On Wednesday, officials sifted through what little remained in the basement, mostly debris, to ensure they'd searched the entire site.
About 30 people filled five-gallon buckets with debris, then carried them to a barn on the property. There, about 20 others went through the material, using quarter-inch wire screens to separate out small pieces of debris for examination.
They started at 8:30 a.m. and had the scene cleared by 1:30 p.m.
There is no other debris to examine, Happ said, so officials' only hope is that what they found can be used to confirm whether Ward died in the fire.