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'That fire consumed everything'
Two dead in duplex fire

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

A man died outside the front door of a two-story Riverdale duplex as the building behind him was destroyed by fire.

A woman died in what was the upstairs bedroom of the 5606 Windwood Road residence, the roof collapsing above her, and the floor below her threatening to give way.

The two, who have not yet been identified by authorities, were apparently sleeping when the fire began on Tuesday afternoon.

The man was wearing only boxer shorts, when he was awakened to find himself trapped by a fully-involved fire. Neighbors said they woke him up, pounded on the front door, shouting "Fire!" "Get out!" "Fire!" "There's a fire!" "You got to get out."

The man reportedly came to the upstairs window, when the neighbors were shouting at him, and told them simply, "I can't. I'm trapped."

Fire trucks were called at 1:20 p.m., but by the time the first firefighter arrived, the man had been dragged outside by a neighbor, who rushed in under the smoke and found the man unconscious at the bottom of the stairwell, Chief Alex Cohilas said.

"There was a rescue attempt. He went in the front door, ducked down under the smoke, and found the deceased laying at the front of the stairs. It was a courageous attempt," Cohilas said.

When firefighters arrived at the scene, the man was already dead, though, and the building was starting to collapse.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Lloyd Henry, a house painter who was working nearby and went to try to help when he heard shouts. "The flames, the heat, it just blew out the front of the house ... He just lay there. He couldn't move. He died right in front of our eyes."

Demetrice Graham, a neighbor, said he couldn't even get close to the dying man because the fire was so fierce and hot. He said he thought they could wet down a blanket and try to throw it on the dying man, but the scene was confusing, chaotic and quickly over.

"He almost made it," Graham said. "I can't believe he died ... It was a tremendously hot, I didn't even get past that bush. Maybe, if I'd had a hose -- that fire consumed everything."

The blaze blistered the siding of an adjacent house, scorched the interior framing of the duplex, and collapsed the roof and the second-story floor, reaching temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees, Cohilas said.

When firefighters were able to calm the fire and get into the house, they found an adult woman dead in the upstairs bedroom. The roof above her had collapsed and the floor below her was unstable, according to Battalion Chief Landry Merkison. The crew spent a lot of time trying to stabilize the structure, so the body could be removed.

It was not clear Tuesday afternoon, what caused the woman's death or if she knew there was a fire when she died. "We're a long way from being able to say exactly what happened," Merkison said at the scene.

The start of the fire was not immediately known, though officials suspected the kitchen. A very likely scenario, according to Cohilas, would involve someone starting to cook something and then going upstairs and falling asleep.

"There's only one way out of these units," the chief said. "If you're upstairs and the fire is downstairs, that's a really bad situation -- but it's really early in the investigation, and our investigators have just started to comb through the scene."

A little after 3:30 p.m., as a hearse idled at the end of Windwood Road, waiting for police cars and fire trucks to clear the way, investigators climbed the long ladder on a ladder truck, shooting photographs of the fatal scene from above.