HAVERHILL — Officials said it will likely be months before they determine the cause of death of an elderly woman who was trapped in the March 7 Washington Street fire, but they know the blaze spread quickly because of the use of medical oxygen in the building.
State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan said medical oxygen has been a growing issue in serious fires in Massachusetts. Since his office began tracking such fires in 1997, 85 serious fires have involved home oxygen, Coan said. They have resulted in 33 deaths and injuries to 58 people and seven firefighters, he said.
Yesterday, State Fire Marshal spokeswoman Jennifer Mieth said the investigation into the Haverhill fire has not concluded and that investigators have additional interviews to conduct. She said that one of the things being looked into is what resident of the triple-decker building had a prescription for medical oxygen.
Phyllis Lamot, 84, died in her first floor apartment at 477 Washington St., during the blaze.
Yesterday, Essex District Attorney spokeswoman Carrie Kimball Monahan said the medical examiner's office has not issued a cause of death and that a toxicology report is pending. She said the tests could take months to complete.
Coan said investigators have determined that what witnesses described as an explosion was the explosion of a pressurized oxygen tank.
"There was medical oxygen in this home and that definitely increased the speed at which the fire developed and grew, quite possibly making escape much more difficult in a situation where seconds count," Coan said.
He said oxygen soaks into bedding, clothes, hair, furniture and the air, creating an environment in which things catch fire more easily, fire spreads faster and burns hotter.
The fire is being investigated by the Haverhill fire and police departments, and State Police assigned to the office of the state fire marshal and to the office of Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.
City officials said Lamot lived with two younger relatives, Raymond Matthes, 55, and Sherry Matthes, 53, who were both injured in the fire. Public Safety Commissioner Alan DeNaro said the two tried to put the fire out themselves instead of calling 911 immediately. He said that caused a crucial delay in the arrival of firefighters.
Lamot's son David Lamot, 51, of Gilford, N.H., said he believes his mother died of smoke inhalation.
"They told my sister that she did not get burned, so I would imagine it was smoke inhalation," he said.
Hours after the deadly blaze, firefighters held a press conference to say Lamot may have survived the fire if Mayor James Fiorentini had not cut two men from their rescue truck. The mayor had made the cut the week before the tragic fire to cover a $200,000 deficit in the department's overtime budget.
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