METHUEN — Likely disoriented and blinded by smoke, an elderly couple believed to be James and Thelma McDermott went in opposite directions trying to escape a deadly blaze that swept through their Buttonwood Drive home in the early-morning darkness.
James, 81, and Thelma, 79, were both killed in the 3 a.m. inferno yesterday at 22 Buttonwood Drive. Their home did not appear to have any working smoke detectors, authorities said.
Thelma’s body was found near a bathroom window in the back of the home, while her husband was found just inside the front door. The couple’s dog also perished in the blaze, which may have ignited in their attached garage, said Fire Chief Steve Buote.
At 3:08 a.m., police officer Neil Quinlan first found the McDermotts’ house fully engulfed in flames after spotting “a glow in the sky” and investigating. But neither Quinlan nor firefighters could enter the home due to enormity of the blaze. The couple, believed to be the McDermotts pending official confirmation from the medical examiner’s office, seems to have perished inside their home before firefighters arrived, Buote said.
“I attempted to approach the house to alert the residents, however, as I got closer, I could observe heavy black smoke billowing from all points of the house and I was hearing small explosions in the garage, making it unsafe to proceed any further,” Quinlan wrote in a report.
Quinlan said he and other police officers started evacuating neighbor’s homes “as the sky was full of burning embers and trees were starting to catch fire.”
Buote surmised after the fire started the McDermotts’ home filled with smoke and visibility became poor inside. Disoriented and likely suffering from smoke inhalation or poor visibility, the couple became separated and “went in two different directions,” he said.
It appeared James McDermott was trying to escape through the front door “when he was overcome and collapsed,” Buote said.