A rescue, a death, and a firefighter’s haunting connection

On Wednesday afternoon, windows were boarded up and charred debris was outside. Some smoke detectors worked.
Wendy Madea/Globe Staff
On Wednesday afternoon, windows were boarded up and charred debris was outside. Some smoke detectors worked.

GLOUCESTER — By the time firefighter Jon Sanger made it into the bedroom, it was choked with black smoke and the light on his helmet barely illuminated the teenage girl collapsed behind the door.

He grabbed her, dragged her into the hallway, and called for help. The girl had been trapped inside Tuesday night for at least seven minutes while police and the girl’s brother vainly tried to rush through heat and flames to reach her and while Sanger and other firefighters arrived and mounted ladders to beat back flames with powerful blasts of water. Seconds now were precious.

In the hallway, the smoke cleared enough for Sanger’s helmet light to show how precious they were.


The light revealed a familiar face. He knew her well. It was 15-year-old Victoria McCabe Schmelzer, his daughter’s childhood playmate.

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Sanger and other firefighters carried her out, and rescuers started immediately trying to revive her. It was not enough. Wednesday morning the girl died.

“Heartwrenching,” Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Aiello said of the moment that Sanger realized that he knew the young girl he was trying to save.

Aiello described the rescue in detail, but said Sanger was badly shaken and would probably not speak publicly. Sanger did not return calls requesting comment.

“Whenever you come across a victim, it’s always tough, but especially when [it is] a young girl who still had so much of her life ahead of her and somebody we know,” Aiello said. “We grieve for the family.”


State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan said in a statement that the fire was an accident, caused by combustible materials in the second-floor bedroom of the victim’s 17-year-old brother that came into contact with a lamp and ignited.

“This tragedy occurred ­despite the heroic efforts of the Gloucester firefighters who were able to rescue and revive her,” Coan said.

When firefighters arrived at 36 Summer St., they were the third wave of people frantically trying to rescue the girl, who was trapped in her second-floor bedroom by a deadly combination of heat, smoke, and flames.

Her brother had raced up the stairs, but could not get through the flames, so he called to her to crawl out under the smoke, Aiello said.

But she would not leave her room. ­Victoria had special needs, Aiello said; she was scared, and might not have known what to do.


A neighbor said that once the girl’s brother emerged from the house, a police officer and firefighter had to hold him back from turning around and running back into the blaze.

Gloucester police also tried to save the girl, but were forced to retreat.

It took just three minutes for firefighters to arrive. Three from Engine 1 pushed the wall of flames back into the brother’s bedroom with powerful sprays of water, Aiello said, and firefighters from Ladder 1 climbed the exterior of the three-story, two-family house. The girl was not conscious when she was carried out.

On Wednesday afternoon, windows were boarded up and a pile of charred debris was outside: an upside-down broken dresser, an American history book, and a copy of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

The family was still at Massachusetts General Hospital, neighbors said.

Robert Ohman, 63, who lives with his wife in the house, said the McCabe Schmelzer family moved to Summer Street about eight years ago from the Seattle area.

His wife owns the house, he said, and they knew Victoria as Tori.

She was shy, he said, and her big brother always watched out for her.

“They were very loving,” he said. “He was always doing his best for her to help her out with the things she needed to do. . . . He was very protective of her.”

The family has an older son as well, who does not live in the Summer Street home, Ohman said.

Neighbors remembered ­Victoria as a quiet and sweet child who they often saw playing with the family dog, a ­miniature collie named Bella.

Madeline Campbell, 69, lives across the street and has a ­beagle named Pepper. Victoria was always delighted to have the two dogs play together, she said.

“Every time the little girl sees me, she says, ‘Oh, Bella, let’s go see Pepper!’” said Campbell. “Bella and her used to run across and see my puppy.”

Campbell said that she and her neighbors stood out on the street during the fire and that at first she did not think the fire was that serious.

“All I saw was one window with fire and outside a little bit,” she said. “The fire was in the walls. . . . It was worse than you could see.”

Told that her young neighbor had died, she began shaking and shouted “No, no, no!”

Bob Williams, 63, lives next door and said he knew Victoria because he was a custodian for the public schools in Gloucester.

The girl did not currently ­attend public school, according to school officials, but Williams said he used to see her at the middle school, where she had friends.

“She was a good kid; she was one of the kids in school who had a good personality, [who] you could talk to, fool around with,” he said, standing on his porch and looking at her home.

Officials said some smoke detectors in the house functioned properly, but investigators are still studying them.

Gloucester firefighters are hurting, Aiello said.

Sanger used to live across the street from the girl, and Aiello knew her because his wife ran an ­afterschool program she ­attended.

“She was just a sweetheart of a kid,” he said.

He has called in a stress ­debriefing team to help firefighters cope with the tragedy, he said.

Mayor Carolyn A. Kirk said the city will try to help the family in their hour of need.

“Despite really heroic ­efforts, the outcome is just tragic for the family,” said Kirk. “It’s a sad day in Gloucester.”

Evan Allen can be reached at John R. Ellement can be reached at ­ Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.