METHUEN — Joe Torrisi and his wife woke up around 3 a.m. Wednesday to blue lights flashing and a blazing orange sky out their window. Flames shot 100 feet into the air, past the tops of the towering pine trees behind their home. Torrisi jumped out of bed, and he could see his neighbor and friend, Jack McDermott, standing in his yard, watching his brother’s house burn. He got dressed and ran outside.
“The flames were just unreal,” Torrisi said. “I said, ‘Have you heard anything?’ [He said] ‘No.’ . . . That’s the sad part. That’s the worst part. Not knowing.”
McDermott’s brother and sister-in-law, James and Thelma McDermott, 81 and 79, were killed when a fire swept through their Buttonwood Drive home, Methuen Fire Chief Steven Buote said. According to the city’s assessment department, James McDermott purchased the home in 1966.
“Thelma was found inside a bathroom window. James was found inside the front door,” said Buote. “My guess is, they woke, and they were most likely disoriented. For some reason, they went different ways. She went to the back of the house, he went to the front of the house. Unfortunately, they both got to an exit but neither one of them were able to actually exit.”
The McDermotts were the 10th and 11th people in the state to die in fires since the first of the year; according to State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan, eight of the 11 victims were over 65.
“Our statistics bear out the fact that the elderly are suffering very much this year from the tragedy of fire,” said Coan.
A police officer on patrol in the area called in the fire around 3:10 a.m., said Buote, and 911 calls began coming in at the same time. But by the time firefighters got to the ranch-style house, it was fully engulfed.
The fire appears to have started in an attached garage, said Buote, but it was not yet clear how. A vehicle and a snowblower inside the garage both had gasoline inside them, which he said could have been ignited by the flames.
“Once the gas ignited, it erupted into a ball of flames,” said Buote. “The fire was so intense that once it got in to the main structure it just traveled through it quickly."
When firefighters arrived on scene, Buote said, there were no smoke detectors sounding. Firefighters could not get to the couple until they had beaten back the flames, but by then, it was too late.
“There was absolutely no chance of survival for either of them,” said Buote.
A dog was also killed in the fire Wednesday, and several cats were unaccounted for, he said.
One major risk factor for the elderly, Coan said, is that often their homes lack smoke detectors. In the Methuen fire and in a Feb. 14 fire in Concord that killed a couple in their 80s, he said, he does not believe there were working detectors.
On Wednesday, smoke still billowed from McDermotts’ house, and hung in the air outside the home that neighbors said Jack McDermott and his wife shared. A woman who answered the door at the home declined to speak with a reporter. Torrisi said McDermott had found out through television news that his brother and sister-in-law had been killed in the flames.
“How do you deal with something like that? I don’t have a clue,” said Torrisi. “It’s unbelievable.”
Neighbors were evacuated for hours while firefighters battled the blaze. Next door to James and Thelma McDermott’s home, the Workman family was awakened by police pounding at their door telling them to get out.
“I thought my whole neighborhood was on fire. Because that’s all I could see, from left to right, was fire,” said Lisa Workman, who fled with her husband and two children.
Workman and her husband, Tod, said they lived next door to the McDermotts for 12 years, and described them as wonderful neighbors who gave their children presents on Valentine’s Day. James McDermott, they said, was always out tending his home.
“We heard his hammer and saw every summer,” said Workman. “Even this past summer, he’s been up on his roof.”
“He was a handyman, the guy could do anything,” her husband said.
Austin Workman, 12, said he used to haul wood over to his neighbors’ home, shovel their driveway, and rake their yard.
The McDermotts loved animals, said Lisa and Tod Workman, and in addition to their dog and cats, they kept their birdfeeders full. James McDermott was retired, but had worked as the athletic director at Methuen public schools, they said, and Thelma was a nurse.
The state launched a new fire safety program last year called Senior SAFE that funds education and fire prevention services for elderly populations, said Coan. The program is based on a program targeting children, which Coan said has reduced the deaths of children in fires by 72 percent over the past 19 years.