Scooter ruled out as cause of fatal fire (update)

SARANAC LAKE – An elderly woman’s electric scooter was involved in a fire that led to her death, but it didn’t start the blaze, fire officials said Tuesday.

What actually did cause the Sunday morning fire in Rose Schoonmaker’s fifth-floor apartment in the DeChantal high-rise may not be known for several more weeks, Saranac Lake Fire Chief Brendan Keough said in a press release.

“(State Office of Fire Prevention and Control) officials have informed Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department that it will take approximately three to four weeks to complete their investigation and make a final determination on the cause of the fire,” Keough wrote in the release. “The fire appears to be accidental in nature at this time and is not considered suspicious.”

Meanwhile, an autopsy conducted Monday at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake determined Schoonmaker died of smoke inhalation, according to Franklin County Coroner Ron Keough. He said Tuesday that a ruling on the manner of death is still pending.

Residents of the DeChantal who tried to help Schoonmaker and other sources told the Enterprise on Sunday that her electric scooter had caught fire while she was in the bathroom and that the scooter was blocking the door of the bathroom, preventing her from getting out of the apartment.

While investigators have determined Schoonmaker’s power chair was involved in the fire, Brendan Keough said Tuesday that they have tentatively ruled it out, as well as her home oxygen system, as causing the blaze. He said it is important to share this piece of information “due to the many concerns of power chair users.”

The Enterprise asked Keough Tuesday night whether the scooter may have blocked Schoonmaker’s escape from the apartment. He said it was located about five feet inside the main door to the apartment and was positioned outside the bathroom and bedroom doors. However, Keough said he couldn’t say whether it blocked her from getting out of the apartment until the investigation is completed.

“Additional information regarding the cause and origin of the fire will be provided when the State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, Franklin County Cause and Origin Team, the Franklin County Coroner’s Office and the Saranac Lake Police Department complete their joint investigation,” Keough wrote in the release.

Five other people were taken to the hospital after the blaze broke out around 8 a.m. Sunday. The building’s 110 residents, most of whom are seniors, were evacuated to the building’s ground floors and nearby churches. Most were not able to return to their apartments until late Sunday night.

Keough said the fire department has extended its thanks to the managers, custodial staff and the residents of the DeChantal for their patience and cooperation throughout the incident.

“This was a large incident, and their patience and cooperation greatly assisted emergency service personnel with the evacuation, accountability of residents and being able to respond to the fire and various medical emergencies at the scene,” Keough wrote.

“The fire department also would like to especially recognize the heroic efforts of the three residents who initially tried to rescue Rose and their initial attempt to extinguish the fire. These residents reacted without any concern for their own safety and put their own lives in serious jeopardy in their attempt to rescue Rose. Their efforts were above and beyond.”

Schoonmaker, 91, died at Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, where she was taken after being rescued by firefighters. A Saranac Lake resident since 1983, she had worked as a home health aide for many years, according to her obituary, which appeared in Tuesday’s Enterprise. Before moving to Saranac Lake, Schoonmaker had lived in Arkville, where she had run several restaurants and a hotel.

There are no calling hours for Schoonmaker, but a memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or