Community aiding fire, COVID victime

The Moriah Chamber of Commerce is acting as a clearinghouse for food donated for victims of the Oct. 17 Old Aubuchon Block fire and the COVID-19 cluster at the Lee House senior apartments, both on Main Street in Port Henry. Chamber Events Coordinator Cathy Sprague is receiving donations in the chamber offices on Main Street.PRESS-REPUBLICAN PHOTO/LOHR McKINSTRY

PORT HENRY – The fire that killed a 60-year-old woman in a downtown Port Henry apartment building Saturday night was caused by cooking, fire officials said Tuesday.

Mary A. Gutreuter accidentally ignited her clothing trying to put out a stovetop grease fire, an investigation has determined.

She was found dead in her second-floor apartment at 4326 Main St., called the Old Aubuchon Block, about 10:20 p.m. Saturday. Her service dog and cat were found deceased in an adjacent room.

The fire started in the kitchen area of Gutreuter’s unit, Essex County Emergency Services Director Donald Jaquish said Tuesday.

“The cause was a cooking fire, grease, on the stove. She caught herself on fire.”

The fire was investigated by several agencies.

"The cooperative efforts of the Essex County Fire Investigation Unit, New York State Police and the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control-Fire Investigation Bureau, have found the cause of the fatal fire that took place at 4326 Main St., Port Henry was a direct result of a cooking fire in which the grease had ignited," the official report said. "This resulted in the spread and combustion of the apartment itself."

The community is helping victims of the tragic fire with donations of food and other supplies.

This week the Moriah Chamber of Commerce office on Main Street is filled with boxes and cans of non-perishable food items, along with paper products and pet food.

People have been dropping off the items, Chamber Events Coordinator Cathy Sprague said, to assist both the families displaced by the fire and the residents of the Lee House senior apartments, where 10 out of the 25 tenants have contracted COVID-19 and are in isolation ordered by the Essex County Public Health Department.

Others at the Lee House and their contacts are in quarantine because they associated with the coronavirus cases.

Port Henry Fire Chief James Hughes said he arrived at the Old Aubuchon Block within three minutes of the fire call.

“Port Henry Fire, along with Moriah and Mineville-Witherbee Fire departments, initiated an aggressive interior attack upon arrival, relying on the town hydrant system resulting in saving the structure,” he said by email.

“Cause and origin are still under investigation, with no additional details to report at this time. No estimate of cost of damages can be offered at this time.”

The fire was confined by firefighters to the area around Gutreuter’s apartment in the three story building.

Old Aubuchon Block owner William Sayre of Bristol, Vt. has indicated repairs will be made to the building as soon as possible, officials said. Until then, the apartments can't be occupied until a new permit is issued by the Town of Moriah Building Codes Department.

"There is no residential occupancy until repairs are completed and inspected," Moriah Town Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava said Tuesday. "The two businesses located in the building fall under a different set of regulations and we are working to have them reopened. Each apartment and business has electrical disconnects independent of one another."

He said the building will require a complete inspection by codes officers and also by a certified electrical inspection agency before power can be restored to the apartments.

The first floor houses Celotti’s Wines and Spirits and Carpenter’s Tax Service, with one apartment on the first floor, five on the second floor, and one on the third.

The other tenants got out safely and are staying with relatives or friends. The North Country Chapter of the American Red Cross reported they are providing aid to 20 people in seven families.

“The Red Cross is making financial assistance for necessities such as shelter, food, and clothing available to about 20 people,” a release said.

“Volunteers will offer comfort kits containing personal care items and stuffed animals for the children, if available. In the coming days, Red Cross staff and volunteers will continue to assist those affected by the fire as they navigate the road to recovery.”

Assisting Port Henry were firefighters from Moriah, Mineville-Witherbee, Westport, Crown Point, Elizabethtown, North Hudson, and Ticonderoga.

Sprague said more food donations would be appreciated, but no clothing, because of COVID-19 concerns. She said the Threads Thrift and Consignment Store has offered fire victims free clothing. Assistance also came from Stewart’s Shops and the Dollar General, all in Port Henry.

Sprague said Moriah Supervisor's Clerk Becki Gilbo came up with the idea for the food collection, and Scozzafava is assisting.

Essex County has 15 active cases of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus, including two who are hospitalized.

Nine of the 15 are in the town of Moriah, three in the town of North Elba, including one new case Monday, two in Crown Point, also with one new on Monday, and one each in Keene, Schroon and Ticonderoga.

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