Couple dies in Yonkers house fire

January 2, 2008 3:00:48 PM PST
A couple in their 80s who lived amid 5-foot piles of clutter died Wednesday in a fast-moving house fire behind a front door they had nailed shut as part of a "homemade security system," officials said.Caroline Gorynski, 88, was found dead in a first-floor bedroom of her Yonkers home in a middle-class neighborhood a few hundred yards from the New York City line. Her husband Leo, 87, was found in a front hallway and died soon afterward at a hospital, police said.

The fire started when space heaters ignited some of the clothing, papers and other material that was piled 5 feet high throughout the house, said Deputy Fire Chief John Flynn. He said there was clothing right on top of the heaters.

"We called it a Collyers' mansion," Flynn said, alluding to Homer and Langley Collyer, who were found dead in a Harlem brownstone in 1947 amid tons of junk they had amassed over decades.

The Yonkers clutter created hazardous conditions for firefighters, Flynn said.

"The debris was piled higher than their heads," the chief said. "There were just little narrow alleyways for them to crawl through as they searched the building."

Police had to tear the front door off the house, because it had been nailed and screwed to its frame. The home's windows had been secured shut with medal rods, Flynn said. He called the measures "a kind of homemade security system."

Yonkers police spokesman Capt. Michael Murphy said there were no reports of crimes at the house at least since June 1998. But less than two weeks ago, there were 10 or 11 "hangup calls" to 911 from the house. An officer sent to investigate said the Gorynskis were safe but Leo Gorynski was angry because their phone service had been cut off - except for 911. Police left word with the county's Adult Protective Services agency to see if it could help with the phone, Murphy said.

The Gorynskis had used their garage to come and go, Flynn said. Some neighbors said they had been in poor health and had no children.

"It's sad," said neighbor Owen McSweeney. "Nobody should have to go under these circumstances."

Flynn said that although the nailed front door delayed firefighters with a hose a few minutes, it did not delay the search for victims from the back of the house and likely was not a factor in the deaths, given the speed of the fire.

The clutter, on the other hand, "added fuel to the fire" and helped it spread rapidly, he said. He said the couple had oil heat service but had not been using it in favor of space heaters.

Flynn said the living room had been converted into a bedroom and it appeared the Gorynskis had not been to the second floor lately, although it too was densely packed with debris.

Most neighbors said they didn't see much of the couple, but McSweeney said Caroline Gorynski had welcomed him to the neighborhood "and always would be sharing stories about when they first met many years ago."