By Jill Harmacinski
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.
Firefighters are trained to listen for the screeching of smoke detectors when they arrive at fires. However, no sounding alarms were heard at the McDermotts’ home, Buote said.
“We listen for those ... There was no sign of any working smoke detectors,” said Buote, stressing the blaze is under investigation by local and state police and fire investigators. State Fire Marshal Stephen Coan responded to the fire yesterday morning.
The McDermotts’ deaths are the 10th and 11th fire related fatalities in Massachusetts since Jan. 1.
Buote stressed the importance of working smoke detectors in all homes and buildings. “The proper amount and location of smoke detectors could have saved their lives,” he said.
To douse the blaze, firefighters used a “large volume of water,” including high-powered deck guns. But well into the day yesterday morning, long after the couple’s bodies were removed by the Medical Examiner, the fire was still burning, sending large white plumes of smoke into the neighborhood.
The roof collapsed, essentially destroying the wood-framed home which was built in 1965 and was currently assessed at $268,800, according to information posted on the city’s website.
Buttonwood Drive is located between Jackson and Prospect streets, near Methuen High School and Holy Family Hospital. The road was closed to traffic from both the Jackson and Prospect street entrances yesterday as teams of detectives arrived in the area.
The fire is being investigated by the Methuen police and fire departments, troopers assigned to District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office and the State Fire Marshal’s office. Methuen police and the fire marshal’s office both brought mobile command centers, large Winnebago-type vehicles, to the fire scene yesterday.
The investigation into the cause and origin of the blaze could not start yesterday morning until after the couple’s bodies were removed by the Medical Examiner at about 9:30 a.m.
One car was parked in the garage and another outside the house when the fire started, Buote said.
The McDermotts’ home was located at the top of a steep hill on Buttonwood Drive. Their driveway is also on a steep incline. Water that poured into the driveway and the street quickly froze, creating icy hazards for firefighters. “It just created a skating rink there,” Buote said.
Buote said there “some slip and falls” due to the icy conditions, but no firefighters were seriously injured.
Methuen firefighters were assisted at the scene yesterday by mutual aid crews from Salem, N.H. Lawrence firefighters covered Methuen’s central station during the blaze, Buote said.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.