A raging fire that quickly engulfed a New City home Friday night killed an elderly woman who was trapped on the upper level of the house.
This was the first death in a fire in Rockland County since 2009, according to county fire officials.
The fire at 7 Central Avenue, just a block off Little Tor Road, led to frantic efforts by neighbors, Clarkstown police officers and volunteer firefighters to reach Eleanor Luciano, who was trapped inside. New City Fire Chief Ken Flynn said that even though help arrived within minutes, the fire was so intense that it was raging out through windows and was so strong that no one could enter the home until pumper trucks arrived to get water pouring onto the house.
When firefighters did enter, they found that the center stairway in the split-level style home had collapsed. A New City volunteer firefighter was briefly trapped in the collapsed staircase and suffered minor burns on his neck and right ear.
Flynn said the Luciano's son safely escaped the fire. However, Flynn said firefighters were uncertain of where the elderly woman was in the home when they arrived.
Based on initial reports, Flynn said firefighters thought the woman was in a bedroom and that became the focal point for a search as soon as firefighters could get into the home. However, Flynn said the victim was actually in another section of the house and was later found dead on the upper level of the home during the firefighting efforts.
Clarkstown fire inspectors and Clarkstown police detectives were investigating the blaze Friday night to determine the cause of the fire and what led to Luciano's death. Luciano's body was removed from the house by the Rockland County Medical Examiner's Office.
In addition to New City firefighters and Clarkstown police, the rescue attempts and firefighting efforts Friday night involved the Hillcrest, Nanuet, Congers, West Nyack and Spring Valley fire departments. Firefighters from Thiells and Haverstraw were also called in to be on standby in case of other emergencies. Members of the New City Volunteer Ambulance and Rescue Corps and Rockland Paramedics were also at the scene of the fire, along with members of other area ambulance companies.
Clarkstown police chaplain David Lothrop was also at the scene of the fire to assist family members of the victim and neighbors. The victim's son was taken to Nyack Hospital as a precaution.
Among the first volunteers to arrive at the 10:30 p.m. fire was former Hillcrest fire chief Chris Kear, who lives nearby. Kear said he was home at the time the emergency call – he'd just gotten home from watching a youth softball game — and rushed to Central Avenue to help when he heard someone might be trapped in the house.
Kear said that when he got to the burning home he tried to get into the house by the front door but was turned away by thick, heavy smoke and extreme heat. At the time, Kear said he was wearing his firefighting "bunker" gear, but did not have an air pack and mask with him to help cope with the smoke.
As Flynn, the New City fire chief, arrived moments later, Flynn gave Kear breathing gear and Kear said he made another attempt to get into the house but could not make it. Flynn said that initial reports indicated the trapped woman might be in an upstairs bedroom, so rescue efforts targeted that room.
Kear, his face blackened by soot, said he tried to get into the bedroom but again could not force his way in because of the smoke, heat and raging fire. Flynn said that firefighters could not get into the home until pumper trucks arrived and firefighters could attack the flames with fire hoses.
Kear, in addition to being a Hillcrest volunteer firefighter, is also a professional firefighter in Greenwich, CT.
When firefighters could get through the front door of the home, they soon found out that the fire had done extensive damage inside the home. New City Fire Department Lieutenant John Latanzio went through the door and within seconds fell through the home's front stairs, which had collapsed.
Latanzio said he was briefly trapped inside the stairs and intense flames were brushing up his back and burned his neck and right ear. However, Latanzio said fellow firefighters immediately saw he was trapped and came to assistance. He said firefighters used water to keep the fire away from him and they got a small ladder to him so he could climb out of the tight space.
Latanzio said he was not seriously injured. As he described being trapped, Latanzio said he had to punch his way through a way to help other firefighters get to him.
Flynn said the fire is believed to have started on the lower level of the home and then quickly spread to the upper level. He described the spread of the fire as like flames moving up a chimney.
The home was destroyed by the fire, along with a car that was in the garage that is part of the home. Nearby homes on the street were not damaged by the fire.
Investigators Friday night were attempting to determine whether the home had working smoke detectors.
Rockland County Fire and Emergency Services Director Gordon Wren Jr. said he could see that Friday night's fire death had taken an emotional toll on the volunteer firefighters who fought the blaze. He said that this was the fire fire-related death in Rockland County since 2009 and the first fire death in New City in many years.
He said that in the aftermath of the fire, a firefighters would be working to counsel each other so they could deal with the emotions related to the tragedy.