Elderly woman dies in apartment fire

NASHUA – An elderly woman was killed early Monday in a fire started when she apparently dumped a lit cigarette into a paper trash bag, fire investigators said.

The fire gutted her ground-floor unit at Canterbury Apartments, but caused little damage to the rest of the building. No one else was hurt.

Marcelle White, 76, of 51 Congress St., Apt. 1, lived alone and was disabled, neighbors said. White used oxygen and a walker, and seldom left her apartment, neighbors said.

The fire started in a paper bag near her bed that White was using for trash, Acting State Fire Marshal Bill Degnan said. It’s not clear whether White put a single cigarette into the bag or emptied an ashtray into it, he said.

Several residents called 911 after the building’s alarms began to sound, at about 3:36 a.m.

Annmarie Grant, of Apt. 9, said she went down the hall, knocking on doors, and noticed smoke pouring from the top of White’s apartment door. She banged on the door, but got no response, she said.

White had lived in the apartment for more than 10 years, neighbors said. Her daughter, Pamela Mason, 50, also had lived there, but died Nov. 26 after a lengthy illness.

White seldom left her apartment, and had her mail delivered directly to her apartment because she couldn’t climb the steps to the box by the front door.“Nobody ever saw her,” Grant said.

There have been two other fatal fires in the city in the past two years, both also caused by careless smoking, Fire Inspector Rick Wood said.

Smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths in the United States, according to the National Fire Protection Association and U.S. Fire Administration. Cooking causes more fires, but careless smoking kills more people, accounting for about a quarter of all fatal fires.

Fire officials urge people to avoid smoking in bed or while excessively tired, and put cigarettes out in non-combustible containers. Another good idea, for smokers and non-smokers alike, is to install smoke detectors throughout a residence, including one in every bedroom, and check them often to make sure they work.

Inspectors were not immediately able to determine whether the alarm in White’s apartment was working, Degnan said.

Canterbury Apartments was built in the early 1970s, and the alarm system isn’t wired directly to the fire department. The buildings also lack sprinkler systems, which would have quickly snuffed the fire, Degnan said.

Firefighters arrived at the building within seven minutes, and had the fire under control by 4:11 a.m. Residents were allowed to return to their apartments some time after 5 a.m.

The building alarms woke most residents, but not all. Firefighters and police checked each apartment, in some cases kicking doors open.

“There were people ignoring the alarms,” Wood said.

“They had to tell people to get out of the building even after there was smoke in the halls,” Degnan said. “Fire moves so fast, most people don’t understand the speed at which it moves. They only have seconds to evacuate once the smoke detector sounds, in some cases.”

Most residents said it took them a few bleary minutes to recognize the sound of the alarms. They don’t go off often, residents said.

“The alarm didn’t wake me up. I thought I heard something,” Clarence “Buddy” Cochran said, but he didn’t come around until a police officer banged at his door.

Bruno Victal, who lives on the third floor, directly above White’s apartment, ran out of the building barefoot in his pajamas with his infant in his arms, he said. After a moment outside, he handed the baby to his wife and ran back for his car keys, cell phone and shoes, he said.

“It was really, really cold,” he said.

“I heard a noise. It took us two minutes to realize it was the alarm,” Victal said. “All the doors I saw on my way (out), I banged.

“Everything was so fast, I was just thinking about my baby,” he said.