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Dec. 25, 1994

7 killed in fire fed by winds in North Attleborough

Note: This article is from the Globe archives. It originally ran on Dec. 25, 1994.

NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH -- Flames fueled by a fierce windstorm tore through a wooden house before dawn yesterday, killing a mother, her husband, her four children and a teen-age girl who was on a Christmas sleepover.

Around 2:45 a.m., as 50 m.p.h. winds howled, neighbors could hear Nora Fontaine screaming for help as she tried to save the children, including her 4-year-old autistic twins Rebecca and Joshua. But walls of fire and smoke prevented neighbors, police and firefighters from reaching the family in time.

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Also killed were her husband, Ken Fontaine, and daughters 7-year-old Abigail and 12-year-old Rachel Marchand. As firefighters sifted through the devastation after squelching the fire, they found the body of a 14-year-old friend of Rachel’s. Police and fire officials would not confirm the girl’s identity, but Melissa Quinn was spending the night at the house, according to an aunt.

Local authorities called the blaze the worst in the history of North Attleborough, a town of about 28,000, and state fire officials said it was among the most deadly ever in Massachusetts.

Yesterday all that remained of the Fontaines’ residence for nearly a decade was a charred hull on the edge of a large, grassy lot. Amid the waterlogged furniture and trampled toys was a single reminder of the season: a roll of green-and-white Christmas wrapping paper.

John Giesselman, Nora Fontaine’s younger brother, said the entire family had been planning to celebrate Christmas together today. Although the children were not Ken Fontaine’s, friends and relatives said the factory worker cared for them like a father after marrying their mother about two years ago. Nora and Ken Fontaine were in their 30s, friends said. The surname of Abigail and the twins was not available yesterday. Nora Fontaine was pregnant with Rachel when her first husband died.

“Nora had a deep and genuine faith,” said Rev. Noel Sherry of First Baptist Church in Foxborough, which the Fontaine family had attended for four years. “Ken was a very committed father. It was a blended family, which is always a challenge, but they seemed to be doing very well.”

Two-year-old dies in Palmer blaze. Page 48.

The fire was ruled accidental, although officials said they were uncertain of its cause. Neighbors noted that the storm caused power surges throughout the night, and that their electric clocks indicated that the power came back on about 2 a.m. But with no survivors and little evidence, North Attleborough Fire Capt. Scott Erickson said the origin of the fire may never be known.

“We had a great windstorm and rainstorm, and the power was knocked out,” Erickson said. “But we don’t know whether they’d lit candles or someone was smoking or there was a power surge. And there’s no one alive to question.”

Police officer Denis Donovan, the first official on the scene, said he tried to coax two or three of the children to jump from a bedroom window on the second floor, promising he would catch them. But he said they wouldn’t jump because of fear.

Within minutes, Donovan said, scores of firefighters, six fire engines and three trucks with ladders began arriving at the house on Alden Drive in response to nearly a dozen telephone calls to 911. But the flames made it impossible to enter the first floor, officials said, forcing firefighters to climb ladders to the second floor of the single-family house.

By the time they reached the victims, all were dead except Rebecca. Fire Chief Robert Coleman said he succeeded in reviving her with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, then found a faint pulse. But she died shortly afterward at Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro.

Stress counselors from the Boston Fire Department were in North Attleborough yesterday to help firefighters work through their grief over being unable to save the family.

Between tears and shivers, friends and neighbors hovered around the house for hours in the driving rain to remember the family.

“She loved her children; that’s what she lived for, to raise her children to the best of her abilities,” said Lisa Ruby, her next-door neighbor and a longtime friend of Nora Fontaine. “Nora had a heart of gold, she really did. She was also a strong woman, because she had to be.”

Betty Goulet, Giesselman’s mother-in-law, said Nora Fontaine studied up on autism and enrolled in classes as part of her effort to keep her children at home instead of institutionalizing them.

Beside having autistic twins, Fontaine’s 14-year-old daughter Sarah Marchand suffers from mental illness and has been living in a state mental hospital in recent months, Goulet said. Yesterday Giesselman drove there to tell the girl that her mother and siblings were dead.

“Everybody was really looking forward to this weekend,” Goulet said. “Of course, they were all set for the holidays. But it doesn’t seem like a holiday now.”

Officials in North Attleborough said they did not know whether the Fontaines’ house had been equipped with working smoke detectors.

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