June 27, 2013


Fatal fire blamed on cigarette

May 16 blaze at city apartment tower killed 57-year-old woman

FatalBob Ellis/staff photographer
Cortland Fire Department Assistant Chief Wayne Friedman looks over a burned sofa that was brought down from the 10th floor of 42 Church St. following a May 16 fire. A cigarette dropped on the couch started the fire, according to the fire department’s final investigative report.

Staff Reporter

A lit cigarette that dropped on a couch cushion started a fatal May 16 fire at an apartment tower at 42 Church St., according to the Cortland Fire Department’s final report.
Deborah Lawton, 57, died the day after the fire at University Hospital in Syracuse.
Lawton had lived in the building at Apt. 1002 since April 2006, said Glenn Goldwyn, executive director of the Cortland Housing Authority.
Lawton lived alone on the top floor of the 10-story building.
The fire began at the north end of a living room couch, according to the June 11 report released Tuesday, and spread to the south end of the couch.
The report said oxygen tubing Lawton used to help her breathe could have fueled the flames.
City firefighters found 18 inches of burned tubing hanging from an oxygen generator in the room, according to the report prepared by Lt. Angelo Maniccia, and the tubing had some melting in the area that would be inserted into the nostrils.
“It appeared that the ignited fire had reached the area around the victim’s head as a result of the availability of oxygen,” Maniccia wrote.
Firefighters also found an unburned cigarette butt on the couch.
“This butt was unburned but it was evidence that there was misuse and improper extinguishment of lit cigarettes,” Maniccia wrote.
Firefighters also found two burn marks on the arm of the couch that occurred previous to the May 16 fire.
The fatal fire is one of five fires started by unattended or improperly discarded cigarettes in the city since February.
Two city porch fires were started by cigarettes, one on June 21 at Dawn Drive and the other on June 19 at 32 N. Greenbush St.
On June 4, a resident of Apt. 43 at 22 Court St. sustained hand and foot injuries putting out a small fire caused by an unattended cigarette .
City firefighters responded to a small fire in February at 110 N. Main St., Apt. 3., that started from improperly discarded cigarettes.
“We seem to have a rash of fires that are related to smoking materials and what appears to be, maybe, careless disposing and use of proper ash trays and what not,” said city Fire Chief Charles Glover.
Glover urged smokers to use proper ash trays, make sure cigarettes are fully extinguished and not to dump hot or smoldering ashes into the garbage.
Goldwyn was unsure Wednesday how much it would cost to repair damage to the apartment tower.
“We’re preparing that for an insurance claim,” he said, adding that he would not like to speculate before the claim is prepared.
“The damage was principally in the apartment and the repairs for that are under way,” Goldwyn said.
Water used to put out the fire seeped down the walls into the basement, and some ceiling tires were saturated and fell down, he said.
Four apartments adjacent to the fire were evacuated and the occupants housed at the Ramada Inn temporarily.
The residents returned to their homes the day after the fire, Goldwyn said.
Floor tiles that contain asbestos were damaged and a contractor has been hired for asbestos abatement, which can be a lengthy process, Goldwyn said.


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