Leonia house fire leaves mother, daughter dead

Marcus Solis reports from Leonia
January 31, 2014 4:18:38 AM PST
A mother and daughter were killed in a raging house fire in Leonia, New Jersey, Thursday morning.

The victims were identified as 65-year-old Harriette Townsend and her disabled 34-year-old daughter Ruth.

Harriette Townsend worked as a crossing guard in the borough.

On Thursday afternoon, a crane began the grim task of clawing through the debris in a search for the bodies. The fire shattered the family who has lived in Leonia for nearly 100 years.

"We're dealing with it as we can and trying to come to grips with this tragedy," said Gordon Coleman, the victim's brother.

Coleman lives near the house on Maple Street where he grew up. His 95-year-old mother and his brother made it out of the home when the fire started around 5:30 a.m. But brother Howard Coleman went back in to try and rescue his sister and niece.

"He got down low, he tried different techniques to get in but couldn't get in through the house," Gordon Coleman said. "He went to the other side of the house and tried to break down the door and the window, but it was very hot. The flames were too high."

The fire completely gutted the structure and part of the roof collapsed, making it too dangerous for investigators to search inside. Now, the family is in mourning.

"They go to church every Sunday," Gordon Coleman said. "She's a matron at church on Fridays. I cannot understand how something like this could happen to those two folks, truly two fine people."

Investigators have determined the cause of the fire was electrical. It is not considered suspicious.