By Joe Beck
A 72-year-old woman died in a late Thursday night fire that destroyed her home at 220 Locust Dale Road in Front Royal.
Gerry Maiatico, fire marshal with Warren County Fire and Rescue Services, said firefighters arrived at the house just before midnight to find heavy smoke in the first floor and basement areas of the home.
"Crews entering the structure performed an aggressive interior attack and performed a search and rescue for a missing occupant," Maiatico said.
Maiatico said crews were initially unable to locate the occupant, identified as Pauline A. Hockett, but discovered her lifeless body in the basement of the home about 20 to 25 minutes later. He said she died from smoke inhalation and thermal inhalation.
Maiatico said Hockett, who was the only person living in the house, was the first Warren County resident in five years to die in a fire.
Maiatico said the fire was accidental and started from improper disposal of smoking material in household trash. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, he said.
He estimated damage to the large hillside home at $450,000.
Maiatico said firefighters brought the fire under control within 34 minutes after their arrival and stayed until it was fully extinguished through the early morning hours.
But fire crews were called to the scene again at 8:45 a.m. after the fire had rekindled.
A department news release described the scene as "fully involved with extreme fire conditions throughout all areas of the home."
Maiatico said firefighters worked throughout the day and into the early evening but the new fire completely collapsed the structure, leaving nothing but a pile of smoldering rubble by 5 p.m. He reported that firefighters used heavy machinery and a total of 120,000 gallons of water to extinguish the fire.
Maiatico said in a news release firefighters determined that a smoldering "hot spot" from the initial fire that remained "undetectable by sight, smell and technical thermal imagery equipment ignited the vast amount of combustible storage materials located throughout the home."
No firefighters or rescue personnel were injured.
Maiatico said efforts to control the fire and locate Hockett were hampered by what he described as "extreme hoarding conditions" through much of the house.
"The fire crews encountered doors that were blocked with storage so that they were unable to be opened," he said. "They encountered very narrow, sometimes impassible paths of combustible storage throughout the home. In some cases, that storage was reaching six feet in height."
Maiatico said fire crews started a search and rescue operation when "they realized no one was outside to greet them" upon their arrival.
He said the basement area where Hockett was found appeared to be set up as a small apartment within the much larger house.
"The entire first floor was used primarily for storage and was not a habitable living space," he said, adding that the first fire was limited primarily to the basement. The second fire destroyed the house when it reached combustible material stored on the first floor, he said.
Maiatico said Hockett called 911 to report the fire but was unable to provide what he called "clean communication" about the blaze to the dispatcher.
Neighbors spoke of Hockett as friendly, kind and intelligent.
Robert Walker said he spoke to her only a day before the fire and found her in good spirits.
"She was very happy," he said. "She always was a wonderful person."
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org