EASTPORT — An 86-year-old woman died early Thursday morning when fire raced through her home on Mitchell Street. According to Fire Chief Richard Clark the cause of the fire is unknown, but the state Fire Marshal is investigating.
Firefighters found Jane Cook in an upstairs closet, her cat was found dead in a room at the rear of the building. Cook lived alone.
Clara Stelma, a neighbor, said that at around 1:45 a.m. she got up and happened to look out the window at Cook’s house across the street. She saw a ball of fire in the window of Cook’s entryway.
Stelma’s husband Thomas called the fire department. He said that seconds later the front of the foyer burst into flames. The Stelmas said they were devastated when they realized there was nothing they could do to help the elderly woman.
Tom McLaughlin, WQDY-WALZ AM-FM news director, said after he left the station, he went to the Eastport Police Department at around 1 a.m. to drop off a package. While he was there, he heard the tones that alerted firefighters to the fire. He said he and Eastport Police Officer Matt Vinson rushed to the fire, and they arrived at about the same time as Cook’s grandson Mark Cook, who is a captain in the Eastport Fire Department.
“The front door and the entryway were a sheet of flame. We couldn’t get in that way, so we scrambled around to the back door and kicked the door in. The smoke poured out of there and knocked us to the ground,” McLaughlin said.
Eastport Police Chief Charles Shaw Jr. said the fire was a great tragedy for everyone. “She was a sweet lady,” he said. Shaw said it took about two hours to bring the fire under control. “All during that time firefighters were inside looking for anybody in there, when they finally located the woman,” he said.
Officials believe Cook, who was sleeping upstairs, discovered the fire and went downstairs to let her cat out. She returned to her bedroom to get her purse when the chimney collapsed. The stairs were engulfed in flame. She became disoriented and was found in the upstairs closet. The inside of the 1 1/2-story house was badly burned and there were smoke detectors in the house.
When they arrived at the scene, firefighters found the water hydrant near Mitchell’s house frozen. Eastport City Manager George “Bud” Finch said Pleasant Point Fire Department was able to connect to a fire hydrant on Water Street.
The city manager said the city had what is called a dry hydrant system where water can leak past the valve and freeze at the top of the hydrant. “You won’t find a whole lot of them that way, but occasionally that can happen,” he said.
Finch said the house was fully engulfed and the firefighters did everything within their power to bring the fire under control. “From all reports the fire had a pretty good start.” he said. “I am pleased with the response of the fire department, they were on the scene quickly.”
Throughout the night, the Stelmas made coffee for the emergency personnel at the scene. Temperatures early Thursday morning hovered below freezing and the wind made the effective temperature well below zero.
The Stelmas were saddened by the loss of their neighbor. They said they and Cook regularly exchanged Christmas gifts. “She would bake breads and cakes and bring them over,” he said. He said she was a very independent woman. Thomas Stelma said last week he noticed Cook shoveling her walk during the ice storm, and he went out and finished up for her. “She was a wonderful woman,” Thomas Stelma said. “She was the oldest neighbor on the block,” Clara Stelma added.
The Eastport Fire Department was assisted by the Perry and Pleasant Point Fire Departments, and the Eastport Police Department.