UPDATE (10 a.m. Tuesday): The Knox County Coroner's Office has issued a statement regarding the Morris Township fatal fire case:
"A full forensic autopsy was completed yesterday involving a death related to a fire that occurred on 11/18/2019 on Upper Fredericktown Road in Knox County. Preliminary findings show carbon monoxide poisoning with soot in the airway as the cause of death. This is consistent with death by smoke inhalation.
"We currently have a preliminary identification. However, the Knox County Coroner's Office will not be releasing a name until the deceased has been definitively identified, this could take several days."
MORRIS TOWNSHIP – At 2:56 a.m. Monday, a woman called the Knox County 911 dispatch center after stopping on her drive to work.
She described a house at the corner of Beckley and Upper Fredericktown Roads, just outside of Mount Vernon, that was “completely on fire.”
“The house is engulfed in flames,” the woman said. “I see a truck in the backyard that’s moving, so I don’t know if they’ve already called, but I’m on my way to work and like I said, literally the entire house is in flames.”
Hours later, the Mount Vernon Fire Department issued a press release saying two people had fallen victim to the early-morning blaze at 13941 Upper Fredericktown Road in Morris Township. One person had died, and another was sent to the hospital.
Mount Vernon Fire Chief Chad Christopher told Knox Pages that both victims were elderly; a woman died and a man survived. The identity of the woman has not been released; the State Fire Marshal’s Office, which is investigating the case, is waiting on the Knox County Coroner’s Office to release her name. The Knox County Coroner’s Office had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication.
State Fire Marshal Public Information Officer Brian Bonhert could not comment on whether foul play is suspected in the case.
“I think it’s too early,” Bonhert said Monday afternoon. “I wish I had a more definitive answer for you, but it’s too early right now … There’s still some work to be done.”
The Mount Vernon Fire Department was dispatched to the scene early Monday morning. Upon arrival, first responders found the house “fully involved” in the fire, Christopher said. Heavy, black smoke was billowing out of the windows of the one-story ranch home, and the fire had already spread “at least throughout half of the home,” Christopher noted.
Crews immediately sprung into action, fighting the fire from the outside. As smoke emerged from the residence, Christopher said firefighters feared the roof would collapse. It eventually did.
The Mount Vernon Fire Department received mutual aid from Fredericktown EMS, the Fredericktown Community Fire District, the Eastern Knox County Fire District, and the Homer Fire Department. To assist with patient support, the Red Cross was also called to the scene.
When crews first arrived, Christopher said the male who survived the fire was standing outside. He told first responders there was another person inside the house. Given the size and strength of the fire, Christopher said it took emergency personnel nearly two hours to extinguish the blaze. When firefighters were able to enter the house, they found a woman dead inside.
Christopher said the man and woman were the only people in the house at the time of the fire. The State Fire Marshal’s Office is currently investigating the cause of the fire, as is standard procedure for fatal fires.
Christopher said the house is “a complete loss.”
Bonhert said cases involving severe fire damage typically take longer to investigate.
“If we can’t get onto a scene, it can make it really difficult to help determine what caused it,” he said.
Each fatal fire investigation is different, Bonhert emphasized. Given the variables at play, some investigations may take 14 days, while others could last months or more.
“It really just depends on the nuances of each case,” Bonhert said. “But our primary task is to investigate the origin and cause of the fire, that’s why we go to scenes. So that’s what we’re doing now. It’s still pretty early from our end; we don’t really have a lot of information on the fire right now … I did speak with our investigator and he’s still very much working on it.”
Christopher characterized fatal fires as “uncommon” in the Mount Vernon area, as they only occur once “every one or two years.” Mount Vernon’s last fatal fire took place in January, when a woman died in her apartment after smoking while using a home oxygen system, which caused the system to combust.
Still, Christopher said fire-related fatalities occur far too often.
“It seems like we’ve been having one every two years or so,” Christopher said, “which seems like a low amount, but it’s not acceptable.”
The State Fire Marshal’s Office has investigated over 100 fire-related deaths this year, Bonhert said, a number that will likely surpass last year’s total. He said most of the state’s fatal fires occur during winter, as they are caused by the misuse of alternative heating sources, such as space heaters and fireplaces.
“A big thing for us is just educating people,” Bonhert said. “You know, if you have space-heaters, for example, keep them three feet away from anything that can burn. Buy a space-heater that has an auto-shut-off function if it’s tipped over, because if it collects that heat and it tips over, it can start a fire. Never plug them into surge protectors, always plug them into walls. Have your furnaces and your fireplaces maintained and checked yearly to make sure that they’re clean.”
Many fire-related fatalities can also be prevented by checking and replacing smoke alarms, Bonhert said.
“That’s something we always really like to drive home, is please have working smoke alarms inside every sleeping area, outside every sleeping area, and on every floor of your home,” Bonhert said. “They really do save lives.”