July 14, 2013

Fire victims remembered


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Elizabeth “Betty” Waddy had asked her son, George, for an almanac the last time they spoke.

At 98, she remained inquisitive, enjoyed learning, he said.

“This lady was talented, and it never wore off.”

Elizabeth died the next day, July 4, in a house fire at 31 Homestead Drive in Plattsburgh. Police say it was sparked by three children playing with a lighter and accelerants in the garage.

Josephine Brusgul and Walter “Tink” Hotaling also lost their lives.

The residence, a certified adult-care home, was owned by Christopher and Catherine Swiesz, who, George said, called him to express their sorrow over his mother’s tragic death.

“They were incredibly well-intentioned,” he said of the couple’s dedication to the adult-care home. “The environment was really good. My mother was very comfortable there.”

Mrs. Waddy had moved from her home in Saranac into the assisted-living-style residence last August, he said.


The Swieszes’ two-story wood-frame home was destroyed by the conflagration that spread from garage to house too quickly for rescuers to reach Waddy, Brusgul and Hotaling.

The children, police said, raised the alarm, and five people inside were able to escape. Mrs. Swiesz and Samantha Swiesz, 15, were rescued by neighbors.

George has been told by investigators that it is likely his mother was unconscious before the fire reached them, but the toxicology reports have not yet come back.

“It’s not easy to think about this,” he said Friday. 

“Her passing was to be expected sometime within the reasonable future ... but she was still robust and active.

“She deserved to be able to pass peacefully — not like this.”

He expressed sadness over the deaths of his mother’s housemates, as well as for the loss suffered by the homeowners.

“It was something unnecessary; there were three people lost.”


His mother, George said, was “was somebody who symbolized home and the history of the family.”

She was close to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, even family who lived far away.

“She took them under her wing,” said George, a retired Peru Central School teacher who lives in Loon Lake with his wife, Larie. “Breakfast at Grandma’s was always a big deal.”

A native of the Bronx, Mrs. Waddy and her husband, George, moved to the North Country in 1952. She had left school in the 1930s to help support her family, and was a patriotic woman, her son said. A freelance interior decorator, she was also an accomplished musician and artist.

George said his mother had read prolifically when she was younger and still did crossword puzzles every day.


Brusgul, 87, left a deep impression on former neighbor Vickie Trombley of AuSable Forks, who remembered her love of animals.

“Anything and everything for Jo revolved around animals.”

She had cats and dogs herself, and she was always eager to help out animals in need.

“If you were doing a fundraiser or a delivery to a shelter, she would always insist on participating,” Trombley said.

Although Brusgul lived on a fixed income, she would give what she could — perhaps even just a few cans of food, her former neighbor said. 

She had been a registered nurse who had worked at Will Rogers Hospital and Uihlein Nursing Home, among other facilities, and was retired at the time Trombley knew her.

“She was very honest,” she added. “What you saw was what you got.

“We really miss her. She was an amazing lady, very kind, with a terrific love for animals.”

Known as Jo, Brusgul leaves two sons, two daughters, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. 

An avid Yankees fan, she lived in the Adirondacks for 53 years.


Walter “Tink” Hotaling, 67, had a story of his own. 

“He went into the Army and was a gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam,” said his uncle Denver Lee, 76, of San Antonio, Texas.

Hotaling was awarded the Bronze Star, Army Air Medal, the 6th Oak Leaf Cluster, the Army Commendation Medal and the Sharpshooter’s Badge. 

He went on more than 100 combat missions while stationed in Pleiku, Vietnam. 

Within weeks of his return from the war, Hotaling suffered a head injury in a car accident on an icy bridge. After that, “he needed someone to take care of him for the rest of his life,” Lee said.

When his mother, Charlene, went to live at Clinton County Nursing Home, he moved to the Swieszes’ adult home.

“The people at the place would take him down and have coffee at the VFW. Every time, he saw the American flag, he’d about pound his chest,” Lee recalled.

“I’m retired Army, and he would salute me. We had fun.”

No matter how bad his condition was, Lee said, Hotaling “had a good time. And that was his life.”

Email Suzanne Moore