Elderly woman dies in high-rise fire

SARANAC LAKE – Police have released the name of an elderly woman who died in what’s being called an accidental fire in her apartment at the DeChantal Apartments high-rise Sunday morning.

Rose Schoonmaker, 91, died at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake following the fire in her fifth-floor apartment, according to village Police Chief Bruce Nason. He said an autopsy is scheduled to take place today to determine Schoonmaker’s cause of death.

Fire broke out around 8 a.m. in the Church Street building, which provides apartments for seniors. Connie Amell, who lives across the hallway from Schoonmaker, said she was in bed watching television when she heard a pounding on her door.

“I opened the door, and the smoke was pouring in my apartment,” Amell said. “My girlfriend Jean was there trying to holler to (Schoonmaker). I went into the doorway, but I didn’t go in the room because we couldn’t get in there. We talked to her, but there was nothing we could do.”

Amell said Schoonmaker was trapped in the bathroom by her motorized scooter.

“When she goes to the bathroom, she takes her scooter in,” Amell said. “It looks like the scooter started on fire, she was stuck in the bathroom, and the scooter was blocking the door, but she couldn’t get out.”

Nason confirmed that Schoonmaker had a scooter, but he said police and investigators from the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control haven’t determined what caused the blaze. He also said he couldn’t confirm whether Schoonmaker was trapped in the bathroom.

“The investigation is ongoing,” he said. “We’re looking at everything that was inside the apartment and following up on everything. Preliminarily, it appears to be accidental, but the exact start or origin hasn’t been determined.”

As of this morning, Nason said the apartment where the fire started is still under the control of police and fire investigators and hadn’t been turned back over to the building or to Schoonmaker’s family.

Saranac Lake Fire Chief Brendan Keough said firefighters responded to an alarm activation in the 11-story building at 8:03 a.m.

“Firefighters got on the affected floor and reported that they had smoke and a fire in one of the apartments,” Keough said. “They had active fire that they had to extinguish. They made entry into the apartment and rescued the woman that was in the apartment.”

The building’s roughly 110 residents were evacuated either to the ground floor or to nearby churches. Firefighters searched the building three times to make sure everyone got out, Keough said.

“I think they were still finding a few people that needed to be brought down that had sheltered in place in their rooms,” Keough told the Enterprise around 3 p.m., “but everybody’s accounted for.”

The fire chief said five other people were taken to the hospital. Keough said some may have had fire-related injuries, such as smoke inhalation, while others were being treated because of “the stress of getting themselves down to the ground floor.”

Adirondack Health spokesman Joe Riccio said one person was admitted and was still at the hospital this morning. The rest were treated and released, he said.

The Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad set up a triage center in the building’s lobby. Keough said firefighters coordinated with the rescue squad to go up and get tenants’ medications as they waited to get back to their rooms.

“After the fire was knocked down, that part was a busy task,” he said. “This is a big building with a lot of occupants, and this is not something we go through every day, so our firefighters did a great job.”

Most of the evacuated residents were able to return to their apartments by 7 p.m., Nason said.

Keough said fire damage to the building was minimal and isolated to Schoonmaker’s apartment. There was smoke damage from the fifth story up, he said.

DeChantal Apartments is run by a nonprofit organization and is managed by Wayne Feinberg and his father, Phil Feinberg. Wayne Feinberg said he was home Sunday morning when he got a phone call from a maintenance person who said there was a fire in the building. By the time he and his father arrived, Feinberg said the fire department was on the scene using its aerial ladder truck to reach the windows on the fifth floor.

“The first ambulance had left with (Schoonmaker) before I had gotten here,” he said. “One other person who tried to get her out of her apartment had smoke inhalation and was taken to the hospital also.”

Feinberg said he was told by firefighters that there was an issue with Schoonmaker’s egress being blocked, preventing her from getting out of the apartment, although he didn’t know any more specifics.

Feinberg described Schoonmaker as a longtime resident of the DeChantal and of the community. He said there was a lot of “anxiety” among the building’s residents because “this has never happened before. The building’s 37 years old. There had never been a fire here before.”

Amell said she was with Schoonmaker and her family when she died at the hospital.

“She couldn’t talk, but I talked to her,” she said. “We were very good friends. I kind of helped her. She was in a scooter, and I’d do her shopping. I’d go over and do her dishes and help her with her meals. We got kind of close.”

Despite Sunday’s tragic events, Amell said fellow DeChantal residents were handling the circumstances well.

“I’m amazed at what a community this place is because they all pitched in,” she said. “They’re all right there for everybody.”

In addition to Saranac Lake firefighters and rescue personnel, the Lake Placid, Bloomingdale and Paul Smiths-Gabriels volunteer fire departments, and the Tupper Lake and Lake Placid rescue squads also responded to the scene.

Local businesses donated food and drinks to the firefighters and the residents who were evacuated. The American Red Cross also responded.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or cknight@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.