By Marjorie Nesin
---- — The Tuesday night fire that damaged a Summer Street home in Gloucester claimed the life Wednesday of the 15-year-old girl who firefighters initially found unconscious and unresponsive in the home, officials confirmed.
Neighbors recalled Victoria McCabe Schmelzer, who went by the name Tori, as a quiet and shy girl they might see playing with a ball or singing to herself in the neighborhood from time to time. Victoria, who was developmentally challenged and had special education needs, was not a Gloucester school student, and instead attended a special school out of town, neighbors said.
“She was a sweet girl. I would see her outside a lot,” next door neighbor Adam Rosell said Wednesday. “She always was just a happy person. She’d be singing outside; she’d be singing inside. She just liked to sing. And she’d come right over and say to me, ‘You have a cute baby!’”
Victoria died late Wednesday morning at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where an ambulance crew had driven her after an initial transport from the scene to Addison Gilbert Hospital Tuesday night. A spokesman at Mass. General Hospital confirmed to the Times that the girl had been in the intensive care unit at MGH earlier Wednesday morning, but at the time had declined any further comment on her condition.
The nighttime fire in the yellow-colored, red-trimmed home at 36 Summer St. was found to be accidental and caused by combustibles left too close to a lamp in an upstairs bedroom of the two-apartment house, fire officials said.
A charred electric guitar, a bed frame and numerous books splayed out beside the home Wednesday afternoon, left there when firefighters cleared the burnt bedroom after tamping down the fire.
When firefighters arrived on scene about 8:30 p.m., they found four residents — two from the burning apartment and two from the adjacent apartment within the same building — standing outside the house. Victoria’s 17-year-old brother, Alex, lay sprawled on the ground, according to Deputy Steve Aiello, who was on scene at the fire.
“Her brother had attempted to get her out of the building by trying to make it to the second floor,” Aiello said this morning. “He made a valiant attempt to get to her. He had singed eyebrows and inhaled smoke.”
Alex McCabe was also transported to Addison Gilbert Hospital for smoke inhalation treatment last night, Aiello said.
According to fire officials, the girl’s mother and brother had been on the first floor of the apartment in the kitchen when the fire broke out in the vacant upstairs bedroom. Victoria’s father, who also lives in the home, had been working in Beverly, according to fire officials. The 15-year-old girl was in her second floor bedroom, the rear room in the upper floor of the apartment.
“He told us the last time he saw her she was at the doorway of her bedroom,” Aiello said.
Police officer George Carr, who also had attempted to rescue Victoria from the home before firefighters arrived, was treated for smoke inhalation at Addison Gilbert Hospital as well, according to police logs.
No one was in the room where the fire ignited at the start of the burn, Aiello said Wednesday. Shortly after the fire began to blaze — likely ignited when a lamp set fire to some paper product in Victoria’s brother’s second floor bedroom, Aiello said — the heavy smoke traveling toward the girl’s room would have begun to disorient her. The smoke, along with heat and fire, trapped the young girl.
A group of firefighters burst into the house’s front door, using a hose to clear the way, while others slung a ladder up to her window. The teams reached Victoria at about the same time, finding her unconscious in the bedroom, just behind the bedroom door.
”She was right by the bedroom door. She had tried to escape into the hallway, but she had to retreat back into the room,” Aiello said.
Fire Chief Eric Smith said the firefighter who found Victoria recognized her immediately as a friend of his daughter.
”The firefighter that found her realized at the time that he the knew the girl, which is a tough thing,” Smith said. “Certainly it’s never easy for any of us, and then when he has a personal tie like that, and kids the same age, that’s more stress than anyone needs.”
The firefighters carried Victoria down through the house and outside, where she was “unconscious and unresponsive,” according to Smith.
Smith said the state fire marshal determined that smoke detectors were hung in all three floors of the house, but the ones on the second floor, where the fire ignited, were found “inoperable.”
”We’ve struck as hard as we could on the importance of smoke detectors and we continue to reiterate that they’re a critical safety tool,” Smith said. “I like to think that if there were properly working detectors and more, she would have had more opportunity, at least, to escape.”
The fire did not travel to the second apartment of the home, though two residents evacuated from that apartment.
One of those residents, who owns the entire two-apartment building, said she was still shaking from the shock Wednesday afternoon.
Rosemary Marino had not even realized the fire was burning next door, and she and Robert Ohman were sitting down to watch a television show when Marino saw emergency lights outside and a police officer banged on her door, insisting that they leave the building.
”All of a sudden you see these red lights ... It’s very shocking and trying to compartmentalize it is very difficult,” Rosemary Marino said. “I was just hoping and praying she’d come out of it. You always hope for the best.”
Ohman said he was terribly sorry to hear of the family’s loss.
”Our condolences go out to the family,” he said.
The Rev. John Kiley, the pastor of Holy Family Parish, said he had known Victoria and her family, who are regular attendees at St. Joachim Church in Rockport.
“The parents are very loving parents, and really gave their lives to bring the children up in a very good way,” Kiley said. “(They) certainly were very dedicated to their faith and church, and just good people.”
The fire caused about $50,000 of damage into the home’s second floor, though the fire did not reach into the landlord’s side of the home, officials said Wednesday.
The Northeast Massachusetts chapter of the American Red Cross provided the family with hotel accommodations, prescription glasses to replace a pair left inside the home, emergency funds for food and, if the family wishes to speak with someone, the Red Cross will pay for disaster mental health counseling, according to Red Cross communications director Kat Powers.
“As they start their recovery we want to make sure their emergency needs are met,” Powers said Wednesday. “The volunteers were touched by this family.”
The fire was Gloucester’s second fatal fire this year. A blaze on the night of Jan. 26 took the life of 55-year-old Kim Andersen at the Windsor Lane home, where she lived alone just off Western Avenue.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.