- Associated Press - Saturday, December 19, 2015

ENFIELD, Conn. (AP) - A year after four people were killed in a fire and explosions that tore through a two-family home in Thompsonville, the cause remains a mystery.

A state police and local fire marshal’s 95-page investigative report, dated Aug. 31 but only recently made public, says an investigative team examined the scene, including possible ignition and heat sources, and took multiple witness statements only to conclude that a cause could not be determined.

As a result, authorities may never know with certainty what sparked the fire that led to the deaths of a woman, her adult grandson and two family friends.

“This is probably one of the worst fires in the history of this district, there is no doubt in my mind,” acting Thompsonville Fire Chief Bill Provencher said.

Provencher said the report, written by state police, is the department’s official report for the fire, and the Thompsonville fire marshal’s office will not issue additional reports. The report includes contributions from Thompsonville Fire Marshal Paul Censki.

The fire erupted on the morning of Dec. 10, 2014, in a two-family house on a narrow road between the Connecticut River and the Amtrak train line. Shortly after 6:15 a.m., fire officials received 911 calls reporting a fire at the address, 68 and 70 S. River St. People outside the home told arriving firefighters that several people were still inside.

A neighbor told investigators that “smoke was just pouring out” of the home and that she heard a “hissing sound, like something was ready to explode” and then heard three explosions from the second floor, the report said.

Mary LaPane, who lived at 70 S. River St., told officials she started to smell smoke while taking a shower that morning.

“As the seconds went on, the smoke odor became even more heavy and that’s when I knew something was wrong,” LaPane said in the report. “I got out of the shower and yelled to my sons (Andrew and Jack) that the house was on fire. I never saw any flames yet, but I knew with the amount of smoke in our house there was a problem.”

LaPane, who said she lived in the home for about 12 years, told authorities that one of her sons ran back into the home to rescue a pet dog who was in a cage in the kitchen. According to the report, LaPane said her smoke detectors weren’t working because the batteries had died.

Four fire departments and about 50 firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze. Authorities confirmed four fatalities: Orise Handfield, 59, Joshua Johnson, 20, Cathy Armes, 36, and David Cygan, 19.

They were among a group of seven people- four of them related -who had gathered at the house the night before to watch TV, the report said.

Handfield’s daughter, Laurie Patnode, was also there, with her boyfriend; as were Patnode’s two sons, Joshua Johnson and 21-year-old Richard Johnson. The report identifies Cygan as Richard’s boyfriend and Armes as a family friend who lived at the house.

The deaths were ruled accidental. All four victims suffered smoke inhalation; Johnson and Cygan had burns to their airways and bodies, the report said. A small dog- not the one next door -also died.

Richard Johnson, 21, was severely injured but survived.

“Mr. Johnson had fallen from the second floor bedroom window after an explosion had occurred inside the bedroom,” the report said. “Mr. Johnson suffered a broken back, smoke inhalation with some cuts and scrapes to his body.”

Johnson was taken to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield initially and later was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the report said.

Patnode told authorities that she believed Orise Handfield’s oxygen bottles had exploded.

Patnode, 36, was living in a minivan parked outside the house because, she said in a witness statement, “her mother was on section 8 and could not have more than a certain number of people living in the house legally.” She told authorities she was in the home the night before but went outside to sleep in the minivan. At about 5 a.m., she told investigators, she came inside and slept on the floor in Armes’ room, in the back of the house.

Patnode said she was awakened by someone yelling that there was a fire and she left through the back door. “Ms. Patnode stated she breathed in some smoke but made it out OK,” the report said.

The body of Joshua Johnson, according to the report, was found on his bed in an upstairs room. Armes’ body was in the rear bedroom on the first floor. The bodies of Handfield and Cygan were discovered in the living room downstairs in the front of the house, which sustained the most damage in the fire. “It was obvious that the 2nd floor bedroom had collapsed into the living room on the 1st floor,” the report said.

According to the report, Richard Johnson told officials that, at about 3:40 a.m. that morning, a small fire broke out in the living room near the TV and that he had put it out. The cause of that earlier fire has not been determined, though the report noted “a heavy burn pattern in the wooden floor where Mr. Johnson had stated he had seen the first fire that he extinguished.”

Johnson said that, after extinguishing that earlier fire, he removed the batteries from the smoke detectors because, with smoke still in the air, they wouldn’t stop sounding, according to the report.

Johnson also told authorities that after the family moved into 68 South River St. in August 2014 they had problems with the electricity, noting that he replaced numerous light bulbs,that cell phone chargers would heat up, cords would become discolored and melt, and breakers in the kitchen and living room would blow and have to be reset.

But the investigation could not determine with any certainty that any electrical problems were to blame.

The report listed possible ignition and heat sources that investigators examined: “TV, cable box, DVD player, motorized scooter chair, ceiling fan and light, freezer unit, oxygen generator, multi-power outlet strip and the wall outlets in the living room.”

The report said “the investigative team observed nothing unusual that could be shown to have caused the fire in the structure, however they could not be ruled out completely unless tested by a laboratory due to their proximity to the area of origin.”

“During our investigation,” the report continued, “through witness statements and the scene examination, it was learned that all members of this household . regularly smoked cigarettes in the house with numerous packs of cigarettes and lighters observed by the investigative team throughout the residence.” The report does not speculate on whether smoking might have played a role in the fire.

Patnode could not be reached for comment for this story. Johnson declined to comment. Censki, Thompsonville’s fire marshal, could not be reached for comment- fire officials said he is out of the office for the rest of the month.

Enfield Police Chief Carl Sferrazza said local police did not conduct a criminal investigation because the fire marshal’s office did not find a suspicious cause or suspect the fire was arson.

According to the report, the home was about 3,560 square feet. Earlier this year, it was torn down.

The property owner, Suzanne LaPane, said she plans to sell the lot in the spring.

___

Information from: Hartford Courant, http://www.courant.com

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