Woman dies in Cheswold apartment fire

CHESWOLD — A trapped woman pleaded “Help me, help me” but a neighbor couldn’t get close enough to save her.

Robert Poore was sitting at the kitchen table around 9:30 p.m., Sunday when he heard someone scream “smoke!” from outside.

He immediately exited his home and saw a blaze engulfing the building next door at 179 Commerce St.

After charging up a flight of stairs and kicking open an apartment door, Mr. Poore couldn’t barrel through the intense heat and black smoke pouring from the residence.

“I just reacted and went up there,” he said.

The would-be rescuer unwillingly retreated to safety. A victim was later found dead inside the second floor residence of the burned building.

Sandra Caldwell sits in front of a burned out apartment building at 179 Commerce Street in Cheswold Monday, talking to neighbor Robert Poore. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

“I feel so, so bad that I couldn’t do anything more,” Mr. Poore said at around noon Monday in the aftermath.

No other resident injuries have been reported, officials said.

A Dover Fire Department responder suffered smoke inhalation that required transport to Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia in critical but stable condition.

Early Monday afternoon the Delaware Fire Marshal’s Office said investigation into the cause and origin of the fire was continuing. An autopsy by the Delaware Division of Forensic Science was scheduled for today.

Fire investigators estimated $50,000 in damage to the building,

According to residents and neighbors, all the apartment’s utilities had previously been shut off and the victim was believed to have used a candle to light the apartment beforehand.

Displaced resident Sandra Caldwell said she let the victim charge her cell phone on her cord earlier in the day because she had no power.

“I didn’t know her well, but just felt I should check on her,” she said. “There wasn’t any reason for it, I just thought that I should.”

Mr. Poore said he too barely knew the victim, who was partially disabled with leg and arm injuries and sometimes walked down the street.

He was still shaken by the experience of her death a day later.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I’m dealing with it, but it’s hard.”

Mrs. Caldwell, who lived next door to the source of the fire, offered her condolences and support for Mr. Poore’s efforts.

“You did the best you could, you did all you could even though you had your own physical problems,” she told him Monday.

According to Mrs. Caldwell, “He was literally trying to run through the thick smoke clouds and save a life. He is a hero in my eyes even if he wasn’t able to do that.”

Mr. Poore said he was administered oxygen afterward because “I was coughing up stuff and having trouble breathing right for a bit.”

Three other apartments were damaged, and approximately 10 residents (including several children) were displaced.

Mrs. Caldwell returned to see if anything could be salvaged from her apartment of more than 11 years, but wasn’t holding out any hope.

“I’m pretty sure everything is gone,” she said.

If not for her husband seeing the fire while walking down an alleyway and alerting the family inside, Mrs. Caldwell is convinced they might have perished as well.

“We are all here only by the grace of God,” she said.

According to Mrs. Caldwell, her family was staying at a local hotel after the American Red Cross responded to the scene.

“They have been awesome,” she said.

Arriving within moments

Cheswold Volunteer Fire Company Chief Josh Dempsey reported that a vehicle driver arrived at the station just moments after the fire began to alert members of the developing incident less than a quarter-mile away. He said trucks were pulling out of the driveway as an official call came in and the alarm whistle began to blow.

Within seconds, four Cheswold VFC trucks arrived to an intense blaze.

“Firefighters were met with extreme heat that melted some parts of their fire gear,” Mr. Dempsey said.

The Dover Fire Department responded with three trucks, including two ladders, and the Leipsic FC provided two. Three ambulances and two medical units also arrived, along with a Delaware State Police helicopter. The Clayton VFC provided backup for any other calls Cheswold may have received.

Mr. Dempsey estimated it took 20 to 25 minutes to knock down the fire, and about an hour to bring it completely under control.

A few dozen bystanders gathered as the fire response unfolded, Mr. Poore said, and the scene was cleared by about 2:45 a.m. Monday.

Cheswold firefighters have responded to three incidents within 400 feet of each other in the area in the past 15 months, officials said. One blaze was deemed accidental and another occurred at an abandoned house, according to authorities. Mr. Poore said months ago he helped evacuate a family from a fire less than a full block away.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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