Smoldering fire takes life of Rose City resident

A 71-year-old Rose City West resident, Charlene Kay McCrady, died of apparent smoke inhalation on Monday after a fire that started in the attic space above her Rose City West apartment filled her unit with smoke. Two cats were also found dead in the apartment.

According to Lovell Fire Captain Bob Mangus, who was among the first responders at the scene, about a dozen firefighters searched the smoke-filled apartment on Monday afternoon shortly after responding to a 911 call that came into the Lovell dispatch center shortly after 3 p.m. to determine the source of the smoke. During the search first responders found McCrady’s lifeless body on the floor of the apartment. 

Mangus said some firefighters wearing respirators crawled into the attic space, where they discovered a still smoldering electrical fire inside a conduit pipe running under a bed of insulation. He said they quickly extinguished the fire and searched for other hot spots, while other first responders attended to McCrady, who was already deceased when they arrived, checking on other residents in adjacent apartments, as well.

Lovell Police Chief Dan Laffin said officers were at the scene within minutes of receiving a 911 call about the incident. He said, while firefighters worked to find the origin of the smoke, officers went door-to-door evacuating residents who were home at the time for safety purposes. He said they entered apartments that were unlocked when their knocks were not answered and in one case kicked in a locked door to be certain no one was inside needing help.

“At the time we entered McCrady’s apartment we were not able to determine the source of the ignition,” he explained. “There was no visible flame but smoke and black suet encompassed the entire apartment. Since we already had one person deceased, we were not going to risk another. That’s why we made the call to kick in the locked door.”

Firefighters check out a fire in the attic above an apartment at Rose City West apartments in Lovell Tuesday evening after a resident reported smoke.
David Peck photo

He noted that officers were able to search most apartments through unlocked doors and windows. He said though there was no visible smoke in the adjacent apartments there was a noticeable smell. He said he personally notified McCrady’s next of kin of her death at around 5 p.m. 

North Big Horn Senior Citizens Center Director Denise Andersen was the first to discover the scene at around 3 p.m. when she walked over to the apartment from the nearby senior center to check on McCrady after she didn’t respond to a phone call about a ride she had scheduled with the center’s transportation service. Andersen said McCrady had scheduled a pick-up time of 3:15, at the same time informing center staff that she had to be at a 3:30 p.m. doctor’s appointment.

Andersen said McCrady was a frequent user of the center’s ride service and was always “very good” about being ready for her rides and arriving at her appointments in a timely manner.

“It struck me as very unusual that she didn’t answer the phone,” said Andersen. “That’s why I walked over to check on her. It was a nice day out and I almost half expected to find her sitting outside, enjoying the nice weather, having lost track of the time.”

When Andersen arrived at the apartment, she said she noticed that the windows were black.

“I thought it odd but rationalized that maybe she had blackout drapes on her windows,” she said.

Andersen said she knocked on the door, at the same time calling McCrady’s name. When there was no response, she cracked the unlocked door to the apartment by a few inches and continued to shout McCrady’s name, with no response. 

Andersen said she noticed black suet on the edge of the door when she opened it and was almost immediately overwhelmed by a “toxic” smell. She said, on further examination, she could see McCrady on the floor through the smoke-filled room and immediately called 911 for help. Within minutes four police officers, several sheriff’s deputies and firefighters were at the scene.

Laffin credited Andersen’s quick actions as very likely saving other lives, noting that the fire, if left unchecked, may have spread to neighboring apartments.

“I wholeheartedly believe that Denise saved lives by alerting authorities immediately,” said Laffin.

On Tuesday, Lovell Fire Chief Jim Minchow said, though awaiting an official report from the state fire marshal who conducted his examination of the scene the same day of the fire, he is fairly certain firefighters found the source of the fire but were unsure of the cause. He said, based on the amount of suet and smoke in the apartment, the fire could have been smoldering for up to 24 hours.

He added that a thorough search by firefighters discovered the cover to the unit’s smoke detector melted, but found no batteries on or near the unit. Mangus added that none of the other residents reported hearing the sound of the alarm, so he assumes it did not emit the type of sound that would be expected considering the amount of smoke in the room.

Rose City West manager Nick Lewis said some of the smoke detection units in the apartment are hard-wired and do not require batteries. He said he conducts a maintenance inspection of each unit in the fall that includes testing the units, replacing batteries in units that require batteries, along with other tasks like replacing furnace filters. He said he keeps a record of each individual apartment inspected, but could not say if McCrady’s apartment had the type of smoke detector that requires batteries or the type of unit that is hard-wired in, because at the time of the telephone interview he was not at the location where he had access to the files.

A team of professional electricians was called to the scene on Tuesday to check the entire pod, including all individual apartments for potential electrical problems. According to Minchow, residents were advised that they could return safely to their apartments after the electrical systems checked OK.

Firefighters were called to the McCrady apartment on Tuesday evening to put out a truss that continued to smolder. According to Mangus, residents have returned home in three apartments in the complex. A police officer was assigned to keep watch on the building overnight to ensure residents were safe.

This is the first structural fire in the Lovell Fire District to result in a death in 36 years, according to fire officials.

By Patti Carpenter