July 6, 2013

Kids playing with lighter started fatal fire


---- — PLATTSBURGH — State Police say kids playing with a lighter started the Fourth of July fire that killed three older residents.

Walter Hotaling, 67, died in the early afternoon fire at 31 Homestead Drive in the Town of Plattsburgh, police have verified. The other two victims have been tentatively identified as Betty Waddy, 98, and Josephine Brusgul, 87.

The raging fire consumed the two-story wood frame home, owned by Christopher and Catherine Swiesz.


State Police said at a news conference Friday that three children under age 13 were playing with a grill-type lighter and accelerants in the attached garage of the home.

The garage caught fire, and flames quickly spread to the rest of the house.

“The intensity of the fire and heat from the fire made it impossible for firefighters to enter the residence,” said New York State Police Troop B Commander Major Richard Smith.

The children alerted people inside the home and were able to escape without injury, Smith said.

Two of the children lived at the home and the third lives in the neighborhood, said State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation Capt. Robert LaFountain. Their names weren’t released because of their ages.

Mr. Swiesz is an Emergency Department nurse at CVPH Medical Center in Plattsburgh, and he and Mrs. Swiesz cared for several older people in the certified adult family-type home. The Swieszes have three children. Ten people total were living at the home.


At the time the fire sparked, in addition to the three kids, eight people were inside the residence, LaFountain said.

All were able to escape, including Mrs. Swiesz and Samantha Swiesz, 15, who were rescued by neighbors.

“All of the individuals that made it out were out on the arrival of the Fire Department,” Clinton County Director of Emergency Services Eric Day said.

Three of those who escaped were patients in the care of the Swieszes, LaFountain said. They have been placed in another residence.

When they arrived at the fire Thursday, police “began attending to some distraught individuals in the adjacent yard (to the home),” Smith said.


Preliminary evidence indicates that Hotaling, Waddy and Brusgul likely died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, LaFountain said, adding, “A victim will be overcome by smoke very quickly.”

Two of the three who died were found directly above the garage, and the third person was upstairs near the stairwell, he said.

“We are talking about elderly people. Some had other disabilities as well, which would made escape difficult,” LaFountain said.

As of Friday afternoon, investigators had no evidence that there was any violation in regard to proper evacuation procedure, he said.

Autopsies were performed at CVPH Friday by Dr. Jolie Rodriguez to determine the cause of death of each of the victims. The final results will be pending a toxicology analysis.


Because of the age of the children, criminal charges will not be filed, Clinton County District Attorney Andrew Wylie said, but the case will be handled by Office of Children and Family Services.

The minimum age for criminal prosecution in New York state is 13.

“Hopefully, next week, we will take the information that the police have gathered and proceed accordingly” in regard to the juveniles, said Christine Peters, director of legal and social services at the Office of Children and Family Services.

Peters didn’t know if the children had been told that three people died in the fire.


The Swieszes’ adult home had just been re-inspected in May, Peters said, and it met all of the state’s requirements.

Peters could not say whether there is special insurance associated with certified adult homes, and Day didn’t know whether the Swieszes had insurance on their house.


“There were reports from 911 callers of explosions or loud pops,” which is not unusual, Day said.

The sounds could be attributed to many household items, including aerosol cans.

“In this case, maybe an oxygen cylinder, given that there were elderly or folks with medical conditions.”

Fire investigators and State Police Forensic Investigation Unit investigators were at the fire site Friday collecting evidence.

A fire’s size doubles about every one to two minutes, Day said.

As to whether the fire spread unusually fast, he said: “It would be speculation to say that it spread any quicker than a fire would in any other home.”

“If doors and windows are open, it adds draft, and that increases the speed at which the fire can travel through a residence.”

Investigators are trying to figure out if that was a contributing factor in the rate at which the fire spread, Day said.


Firefighters from District 3, Beekmantown, South Plattsburgh, Morrisonville, West Chazy and Cumberland Head all worked in heavy rain and humidity to try to quell the fire. It was extinguished in about 45 minutes.

Continuing the investigation are the New York State Police, the Clinton County District Attorney’s Office, Clinton County fire investigators and the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control.

It was unknown Friday whether the Swiesz family had received Red Cross assistance or where they were staying. 

Email Felicia Krieg:fkrieg@pressrepublican.comTwitter: @FeliciaKrieg