DeChantal resident: ‘I keep reliving it’

SARANAC LAKE – Jean McDonough was watching game three of the World Series in her fifth-floor apartment in the DeChantal high-rise on Sunday morning.

The game between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals had actually taken place Saturday night, but McDonough had taped it so she could watch it later. She’s been following the series closely because her great-nephew, Ryan Lavarnway, is the backup catcher for the Red Sox.

“I used to be a Red Sox fan, then I got away from it until he started playing for them,” McDonough said.

McDonough forgot all about the game, however, after she heard the fire alarm go off around 8 a.m. She rushed out of her apartment and saw the red emergency light on outside apartment 5A, where Rose Schoonmaker lived, at the opposite end of the hallway.

“The alarm goes off if somebody needs help,” McDonough said. “I don’t know what activated the alarm, but I ran down the hall thinking she was probably on the floor.”

When she reached Schoonmaker’s door, which was unlocked, McDonough said she went inside and saw a tall plume of flames. Schoonmaker’s motorized scooter, parked outside the bathroom door, was on fire, McDonough said.

“It was fully ablaze and way up to the ceiling,” she said. “I went in to see if I could find her, and I noticed she was in the bathroom on the floor. Her cart was blocking the bathroom door. I couldn’t get up too close because the fire was so hot.”

McDonough, 83, said she tried to find a way to get around the scooter and into the bathroom, but she quickly realized that wasn’t possible. She said she couldn’t see the 91-year-old Schoonmaker very well because it was dark, so she ran back to her room to get a flashlight. On the way there, she banged on the door of another fifth-floor resident, Connie Amell.

“I got back up there, went into (Schoonmaker’s) apartment again, shined the light on Rose,” McDonough said. “I went and pounded on Connie’s door again and got her up, and she came out.

“I kept yelling at (Schoonmaker) and asking her if she could slide across the floor to the bathtub, but she couldn’t move. I was telling her, ‘The fire trucks are coming!’ I was trying to let her know there was somebody there for her. She didn’t scream. She never screamed. She was talking, but I couldn’t understand her.”

At some point, fourth-floor resident Arthur Arrison showed up with a fire extinguisher.

“He ran in (Schoonmaker’s apartment) with the extinguisher,” McDonough said. “He put the extinguisher on (the fire), and then he went back downstairs. I don’t know whether the whole fire went out, but the flames weren’t up to the ceiling like when I first opened the door.”

When the first firefighters showed up, McDonough estimates it had been between five and seven minutes since she heard the fire alarms. They ordered her and Amell to head downstairs while they went in to help Schoonmaker. Suffering from smoke inhalation, McDonough was taken to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, where she spent the night before returning to her apartment on Monday afternoon.

Firefighters rescued Schoonmaker from her apartment and brought her to a waiting ambulance, but she later died at the hospital. An autopsy found her cause of death was smoke inhalation.

The cause of the blaze remains under investigation. Investigators have tentatively determined the scooter was involved in the fire, but they say it didn’t start it, according to Saranac Lake Fire Chief Brendan Keough. It may be three to four weeks before the investigation is completed.

A resident of the DeChantal for 22 years, McDonough said she knew Schoonmaker well. The two had played cards together. McDonough would take Schoonmaker out when she had errands to run.

McDonough said she did everything she could to try and save her friend.

“You feel very helpless when you know there’s somebody in there burning and you can’t help them,” she said. “I keep reliving it.”

Keough commended McDonough for her bravery.

“Jean really was pretty heroic in what she did,” Keough said. “We don’t encourage that sort of behavior, but Jean didn’t want to leave her alone. I certainly want to recognize her efforts to help and comfort her friend in a bad situation.”

“There’s a good chance (McDonough, Arrison and Amell) could have been killed,” said Wayne Feinberg, who manages the DeChantal. “It was very heroic what they did.”

McDonough said she plans to attend Schoonmaker’s memorial service, which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or