Driving home from bingo Monday night, North Tonawanda residents Anthony and Dawn Gutka thought at first a fog had settled in on their street, but the smell of smoke and then the sight of flames told them their neighbors’ home was ablaze.
Anthony Gutka got out of his pickup truck and ran up to the front door of 53 Third Ave. to try to assist the occupants, Dorothy Burns, 84, and her daughter, Kathleen Watson, 62, who were trapped inside their cluttered 1½-story cottage home.
“You could see the fire in the front window, and I began pounding on the door. When the police arrived, I told the officer to be careful, the door was hot,” Gutka said, adding that his wife had called 911. “Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out very well.”
Firefighters forced open the front door and removed Burns from a front bedroom, but efforts to resuscitate her on the front lawn were unsuccessful, and she was pronounced dead at the scene, according to Fire Chief John C. Lapham.
Other firefighters forced open a rear door and found Watson near the doorway. First aid was performed, and she was rushed to DeGraff Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead, the chief said.
Firefighters received the 911 call at 9:49 p.m., and the first responders arrived three minutes later.
“We had both victims out of the building fairly quickly, within two minutes,” Lapham said.
“Access was difficult due to the extreme clutter.”
“It’s horrible,” he added. “I take it very personally when it happens in my own city. It doesn’t happen very often. The last fire fatality was about five years ago.”
Neighbors reported hearing what they thought was an explosion or series of explosions, but it remained unclear whether that was thunder or the sound of firefighters gaining entry to the burning house.
The cause of the $35,000 fire remains under investigation. Autopsies conducted Tuesday morning at the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office in Buffalo determined the women died from smoke inhalation.
Because of the rapid response by North Tonawanda firefighters, including 28 paid members and 40 volunteers, City Building Inspector Cosimo Capozzi said, the house may still be structurally sound and may not require demolition.
The fire, concentrated in the front living room and dining room, had been declared under control by 10:10 p.m.
Neighbors described the mother and daughter as private, even reclusive, and several neighbors on the section of Third Avenue, between Oliver and Ironton streets, didn’t even know their names.
“They were very introverted and stayed to themselves,” said next-door neighbor Krista Lisi. “I heard pop, pop, pop three times, and I looked out my second-floor window and screamed to my daughter the house next door was on fire.”
Neighbor Molly Johnson said, “My husband and his brother were standing outside and heard the noise. They thought it was thunder, and then all that smoke started coming out of the house.”
Tabitha Ryan said she and her boyfriend, Sam Mincey, helped the mother and daughter from time to time.
“I would shovel their walk for them, and my boyfriend would mow their lawn,” Ryan said, adding that surveillance cameras on her home recorded smoke coming from the house across the street for about “20 minutes” before the fire was reported.
A team of four fire investigators is looking into the cause of the blaze. One firefighter suffered a minor injury but remained on duty.