Southampton Town fire marshals have determined that an inappropriately placed extension cord sparked a fire that destroyed a Flanders home on December 16, leaving an elderly man homeless a little more than a week before Christmas.
Richard Morrison, 73, who owns the single-story home on Priscilla Avenue—and who had his homeowner’s insurance canceled earlier this year because of his inability to repair the roof—has lived there alone for the past 50 years. He is now staying with a family friend in Riverside while he arranges to move in with family in North Carolina.
On Friday, he recalled the events of the morning the fire started and reflected on the kindness of a neighbor, Joe Marshall, whom Mr. Morrison credits with saving his life.
At around 9:30 a.m. on December 16, a few minutes after his visiting nurse left, Mr. Morrison smelled smoke in his bedroom. When he opened the door to look in, the room went up in flames, he recalled this weekend.
He tried to make it to the front door—he uses a walker—but was struggling as the smoke grew thicker and the flames inched closer.
Mr. Marshall, who lives down the block, happened to be passing by when he saw smoke seeping from an east-facing window of the home. He pulled his truck over, pounded on the door and stepped inside, grabbing Mr. Morrison’s hands and leading him outside to safety.
“I was ready to collapse right on the spot,” recalled Mr. Morrison, who suffered burns on both his back and ear, and spent three days recovering from his injuries at the Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead. “He managed to grab me and pull me out the door.”
Fire Marshal John Rankin, who was on scene investigating, said the real danger with fires is the inhalation of smoke and carbon monoxide, which in this case could have quickly harmed Mr. Morrison. “Had Mr. Marshall not been there, I think circumstances would have been a lot different,” he said this week.
He also explained that the extension cord in question was coiled in a cardboard box in a bedroom and had clothing piled on top of it. Mr. Morrison uses it to power a portable electric heater, he said.
Though the heater was unplugged and in a different room, the cord was still plugged into the bedroom wall and ignited the blaze, Mr. Rankin said.
“I have to be thankful I’m here to talk about it,” Mr. Morrison said.
Both Mr. Marshall and Mr. Morrison said the fire spread rapidly, shattering a window and engulfing the whole home just as they made their way outside.
Mr. Rankin explained that it could have been a phenomenon that firefighters call a “flashover,” where the structure seems to ignite all at once when oxygen is introduced—in this case when Mr. Marshall opened the front door. Mr. Marshall, who did not return calls this week, previously noted that he was greeted by a wall of thick black smoke when he opened the home’s front door and found Mr. Morrison struggling to escape.
The home was completely gutted, Mr. Rankin added, despite the quick and thorough efforts of firefighters from the Flanders, Riverhead and Hampton Bays departments who worked for more than an hour to douse the blaze.
Mr. Morrison, a lifelong Flanders resident, said he suffered his injuries due to falling ash and debris inside his home. On Friday, he said he was healing well, but still picking up the pieces.
The next struggle is finding the money to have the house boarded up, he said. His homeowner’s insurance was canceled earlier in the year after he failed to have his roof repaired, he explained.
He noted that he has been receiving calls and donations of clothes from friends as well as strangers, for which he is thankful. Parishioners and the ministry at his church, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Aquebogue, covered the cost of his ambulance ride from the hospital. “It’s all little things like this that add up,” he said.
Shelley Egan, Mr. Morrison’s family friend, took him into her Riverside home and has helped him get to his medical appointments. He explained that he is diabetic and was recently treated for congestive heart failure. He does not have any family in New York.
Mr. Morrison plans to move to North Carolina to stay with his niece in the next year, he said.
“I’m just so, so, so grateful for Mr. Marshall,” he said. “I’m coming along. I’m doing OK.”