AP NEWS

Cigarettes suspected in fatal Alamo Heights fire

December 27, 2018

An investigation of the house fire in Alamo Heights that killed Joanne Cyr, 67, and her 5-year-old grandson, Luke, left the official cause “undetermined” but found cigarette butts and an empty pack of cigarettes on or near her bed.

Joanne Cyr was known by neighbors to smoke inside her home. Virtually all other obvious possible causes for the Nov. 18 blaze - wiring, gas supply or heater problems, arson or a lightning strike - were eliminated to the satisfaction of local and state investigators.

Both victims died of smoke inhalation and the house contained no smoke detectors, according to a report by Alamo Heights Fire Marshal Allen Ottmers.

“We believe one hundred percent that the fire started on the bed,” said Alamo Heights Fire Chief Buddy Kuhn on Wednesday. “And you can theorize all you want, but to say unequivocally it was started by a cigarette paints you into a corner on forensics.

“But what I will say again,” said Kuhn, repeating his statements from just hours after the fire, “is that what should have been just a house fire was turned into a terrible tragedy because they didn’t have a ten dollar smoke detector in the house.”

The nonprofit National Fire Protection Association reports that about 5 million homes in the United States do not have smoke detectors and that residents are roughly twice as likely to die in a house fire if they aren’t present.

Kuhn said the Cyrs’ deaths have caused more Alamo Heights residents to call his department seeking help with installing smoke detectors in the past month than it has received in several years.

“Yet, one week ago,” cautioned Kuhn, “we went to an older educated man’s house where there were no smoke detectors and he refused to have them installed. He said, ‘I don’t need ‘em. I’ll wake up.’ That attitude still exists.”

The Cyrs’ small 1950s-era Craftsman-style home, at 202 Inslee, was fully engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived shortly after 10 p.m. Nov. 18. Earlier that Sunday, at Christ Episcopal Church, where the two attended, Luke Cyr had celebrated his upcoming sixth birthday.

The deaths stunned their congregation and others who knew them. Next-door neighbor Aimee Escamilla remembered Luke Cyr as the kid who played in his front lawn with a glow-in-the-dark saber, and Joanne Cyr, who had lived there more than 20 years, as a diligent grandmother pressed into service as Luke’s guardian due to his parents’ divorce.

The report states that Luke Cyr was found in his bedroom, about 10 to 12 feet from its exterior door. Joanne Cyr was found on the floor in the bathroom off her bedroom with both faucets running in the sink. The door was closed. Both were transported to and later died at Brooke Army Medical Center.

“We think she was retreating from the smoke,” Kuhn said. “There was zero visibility in the house. Floor to ceiling smoke, and we never heard any cries for help, no pounding on the doors.”

Kuhn said the home had all the typical stain-resistant, chemically-treated items like couches, curtains and rugs, and that no single item was suspected of making the fire quicker or more intense than normal.

“But it was a very hot fire, very hot,” he said.

To give some idea of how quickly a fire could start and become so intense that an able-bodied adult would be unable to reach an exit or grab a child, Kuhn said some tests his department conducted in the past showed that a basic wastepaper basket fire fully consumed a 10-by-10-foot furnished room in less than two minutes.

Bruce Selcraig is a staff writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read his stories on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | BSelcraig@express-news.net

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