An elderly woman who lived alone and possibly suffered from Alzheimer's disease died in a fire early Friday morning after calling 911 for help, according to the Newton County Fire Department.
Firefighters discovered her body in the office room of her home at 90 Emily Trace, near Oak Hill Drive, said NCFD Chief Mike Satterfield. She appeared to have died from smoke inhalation, he said, but an autopsy will provide the final conclusions.
The victim, described as a white woman in her 70s, called 911 around 8:15 a.m. saying she had knocked over a trash bin that had a still-burning cigarette and her sofa was on fire.
"Any kind of upholstered furniture puts off a tremendous amount of toxic smoke," Satterfield said.
The next-door-neighbors, the Skinner family, were preparing for a yard sale that day and saw the smoke when Keith Skinner went outside to warm up his truck before work. He ran over and kicked down the front door while the rest of the family called 911 and beat on the windows to try and wake her up.
"I crawled through the kitchen but couldn't see nothing," said the shaken looking father, who still had traces of soot on his face.
Fire crews arrived six minutes after the woman's call and found flames coming from the front door and the living room engulfed in flames.
"There was the thickest black smoke you've ever seen," said Paul Passmore, one of the first firefighters to arrive on the scene. He said had a bad feeling as they pulled up to the home. "It didn't look good."
The 14 firefighters on the scene conducted multiple searches at the same time, starting with the bedrooms, while battling the fire and were able to get the one-alarm blaze under control in about 15 to 20 minutes, according to Satterfield.
But by then, it was too late.
They discovered the woman's body in what appeared to be an office room of the one-story residence, which sustained heavy damage but was not burned to the ground. The heat from the fire melted some of the aluminum siding of the house and gutted most of the building.
"I hate it," said Passmore, of losing the victim to the fire. What particularly bothered him, he said, was the idea that she might have been too modest to run outside undressed.
Neighbors Barbara Spehar and Heather Waddell said the victim was one of the original homeowners when the quiet neighborhood was first built. She reportedly had a daughter who lived in the area and a caretaker who came during the day, but had been homebound for the last couple of years with Alzheimer's and rarely came out except to get the mail.
"I just can't imagine," exclaimed Waddell, putting her hand to her face at the thought of dying in the fire.
She described her as a "spunky little lady" who, before the Alzheimer's set in, would mow her own lawn.
Authorities are withholding the victim's name until all the family can be notified.
This is the second fire death of the year in Newton County, compared to one fire death last year, and the second case of an elderly resident who lived alone and died from a fire accidentally started by cigarettes.
Garland Umberger, 73, of 316 Elks Club Road, died in the early hours of Feb. 17 in a blaze that might have started when he fell asleep smoking. His renovated historic home had no smoke detectors, according to the Newton County Fire Department, and his body was discovered three feet from the front door.
Anyone who needs a free smoke detector or has questions about their smoke detectors can contact the fire department at (770) 784-2116.