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Fire in Manhattan mansion kills 2; Christmas tree lights blamed

December 17, 1997

NEW YORK (AP) _ Two women badly burned in a fire jumped to their deaths early Wednesday from an historic mansion on Manhattan’s East Side just as firefighters were closing in with hoses.

``I think they jumped probably because they were in such pain,″ said Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen.

Investigators suspected a short circuit in Christmas lights as the cause.

The house had a sprinkler system, but a water connection for it was not turned on, Von Essen said.

Catalina Meyer, 60, and her unidentified female house guest were already badly burned when they leaped from the fifth-story balcony, said Von Essen said.

Five people escaped uninjured from the art-filled, 116-year-old townhouse on East 67th Street, just off Fifth Avenue. The 5:30 a.m. blaze, which started on the third floor, also badly damaged the second and fourth floors.

Officials at the scene said Mrs. Meyer helped save her husband, Alvin, described by friends as a retired businessman in his 80s. Another female houseguest and three domestic workers _ a man and two women _ also escaped.

In the 1970s, Mrs. Meyer was one of the first women to work as a stockbroker on Wall Street, friends said.

One friend, Phyllis Keitlen, said ``Kitty″ Meyer more recently ran a custom jewelry catalog business.

Witnesses in a house across the street said they woke up and saw the Meyer house engulfed in flames and smoke, with the two women out on the balcony. One woman was sitting on the railing, huddled against the house, they said.

David Shaw, 51, said by the time they got downstairs the women had already jumped.

``From where I was I didn’t know they were in that much danger,″ Shaw said. ``I could have told them to move to one side or another.″

Firefighters with hoses had almost reached the women.

``I guess they just panicked,″ Von Essen said.

The cause of the fire was under investigation, but Von Essen said investigators found a short circuit in an electrical line for Christmas tree lights installed Tuesday.

Friends arriving at the scene Wednesday morning said Mrs. Meyer gave generously to charity.

``She would support anybody that needed it,″ said another friend, Anna Maria Tornaghi. ``She lent her house for charity events, helped up-and-coming artists.″

She said Mrs. Meyer had returned Saturday from India, where she had gone to shop for goods for her catalog and to look into the state of poor children.

The walls of her house were decorated with art by Roy Lichtenstein, Larry Rivers and other modern artists.

A real-estate broker who came Wednesday morning to assess the damage said the house was up for sale. The broker, Robert Haberman, estimated that the 12,000-square-foot residence, built in 1881, was worth $10 million to $15 million.

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