A woman who used a wheelchair to get around died yesterday afternoon in a fire in her Waldorf town house, a blaze that state fire officials said was caused by smoking in bed.
"That is the safest assumption at this point, that she was smoking in bed," said Allen Gosnell, a spokesman for the state fire marshal's office.
A smoke detector in the home at 4410 Eagle Court Dr. did not sound an alarm because it lacked a battery, fire officials said.
The woman, who lived in the Lancaster neighborhood of central Waldorf, was pronounced dead at the scene. Officials declined to release her name or age but said she was in her sixties. Her body was taken to the state medical examiner's office in Baltimore for positive identification.
Although the woman used a wheelchair most of the time, she was able to move around and go up and down stairs with the help of a walker, Gosnell said. The fire started in her upstairs bedroom.
The fire, reported shortly after 1 p.m., was discovered by the victim's 12-year-old granddaughter, who lived with her mother and grandmother in the North Lake Townhomes unit.
John Groat, a neighbor, said the girl came running to his home and asked him to call 911. Groat said he summoned emergency help and then ran to the burning town house, where he found the second floor engulfed in black smoke.
Rebuffed by the thick smoke, Groat said, he went downstairs to retrieve a wet towel to cover his mouth and nose. His second attempt to reach the woman's room ended at the upstairs hallway. "Once I got into the hallway, the smoke was too thick," Groat said.
Minutes later, three Charles County sheriff's officers arrived and attempted to rescue the woman, said Craig Renner, a spokesman for the sheriff's office. One of officers, Cpl. Tim Hunt, suffered a minor hand injury, fire officials said.
Fire rescue workers arrived soon after but they, too, were "turned away by intense heat and smoke," Gosnell said.
"She was a nice, decent little old lady," Groat said. "She liked to sit out front and watch her granddaughter practice her baton twirling." Groat said the woman's daughter was not home at the time of the fire.
Damage to the town house, confined mostly to the upstairs bedroom, was estimated by fire officials at $50,000.