Victim’s clothing caught fire in fatal DeChantal blaze

SARANAC LAKE – State fire investigators have issued their report on the cause of an Oct. 27 fire that killed a 91-year-old resident of the DeChantal Apartments high-rise.

Rose Schoonmaker’s clothing caught fire after it was accidentally ignited by the stove in the kitchen of her fifth-floor apartment, Saranac Lake Fire Chief Brendan Keough told the Enterprise Tuesday, citing a report issued in the past week by the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control.

Keough declined to provide any more information, either from the report or otherwise, about what happened in Schoonmaker’s apartment that morning out of concern for her and her family’s privacy.

“We do have a very good sense of what happened, but I’m going to leave that to her privacy,” Keough said. “I think those details should remain private.”

The fire broke out around 8 a.m. in the 11-story, 130-unit building. A neighbor of Schoonmaker on the fifth floor, Jean McDonough, later told the Enterprise that she heard a fire alarm going off, rushed out into the hallway and saw a red emergency light on outside Schoonmaker’s apartment. When she opened the door, McDonough said she was greeted by a tall plume of flames. Schoonmaker’s electric scooter was on fire, McDonough said, and the heat and smoke blocked her from getting to the bathroom where her friend was lying on the floor.

A fourth-floor resident, Arthur Arrison, showed up and put out most of the blaze with a fire extinguisher. Saranac Lake firefighters arrived shortly thereafter and rescued Schoonmaker from the apartment. She was taken to Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, where she died. An autopsy later found her cause of death was smoke inhalation.

Damage from the fire was contained to Schoonmaker’s apartment. In the first few hours after the blaze, residents of the DeChantal speculated that her scooter had caused the fire. Keough repeated Tuesday that the scooter was involved in the fire but it was not the source of ignition. It was still fully functional after it was removed from the apartment, he said.

The high-rise’s more than 120 residents were evacuated to the building’s lobby and nearby churches during the blaze.

In the aftermath of the fire, DeChantal managers Wayne Feinberg and his father Phil Feinberg made several changes to their fire safety precautions and procedures. The mechanisms that trigger the fire doors in the hallway of each floor to close were connected to the building’s alarm system. Previously, the fire doors had heat sensors and would only close if there was enough heat in the area. The fire doors on the fifth-floor didn’t close during the Oct. 27 blaze, apparently because there wasn’t enough heat in the hallway to trigger the sensors.

“We’re also talking with the alarm company about adding more smoke sensors,” Wayne Feinberg said Tuesday. “Everything worked the way it was supposed to, but the main sensors are in the hall by the elevator, which was very close to this apartment, but if this had happened at the other end of the (hallway), there aren’t sensors down there.”

Feinberg said a fire restoration company has gutted the area of Schoonmaker’s apartment where the fire took place and has done other cleanup work throughout the building.

Meanwhile, the fire department has reviewed its own response to the blaze to see if there’s room for improvement, Keough said.

“We’re sort of working on it on a somewhat broader scope, not just with the DeChantal, but we’re looking at Saranac Village at Will Rogers, the Lake Flower Apartments (on Kiwassa Road) and others,” he explained. “We’re looking at all of our higher-occupancy senior citizen buildings.”

Specifically, Keough said the fire department wants to have quick access to multiple keys so crews can search a building and make sure everyone has been evacuated.

“We’re looking to make sure they have a current rent roll or a list of tenants, and maybe any special needs that they have,” Keough said. “We’re looking for perhaps a basic blueprint of each one of the buildings. We’re looking for them to have a primary evacuation site, and in some cases a secondary evacuation site where we can reunite families so we’re not trying to do it in the middle of a fire scene. There’s a whole list of things.”

Keough called Schoonmaker’s death a “terrible tragedy.

“The only thing we can do to honor her memory, in my mind, is take those things we learned from it and try to make it better for the future,” he said.

Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or