Fire kills Brigantine man
By BRIDGET MURPHY Staff Writer, (609) 272-7257, E-Mail

BRIGANTINE - Inches from escape, a 40-year-old city man died in a fire Friday morning after collapsing near the front door of his smoke-choked home.

It was too late for firefighters to save the victim - whom neighbors identified as Michael Cox - when they arrived at 230 Ninth Street South shortly after 7:16 a.m., Fire Chief Stan Cwiklinski said.

Off-duty Atlantic City Police Officer Robert Kepley, who lives nearby, saw smoke coming from the house and called for help, authorities said.

The blaze began in the kitchen of the two-story, gray-shingled house, but authorities still are probing the exact cause of the fire, Cwiklinski said.

Firefighters stopped the flames in the kitchen just eight minutes after they arrived at the scene.

At first, six firefighters arrived at the scene with two fire engines and an ambulance. Fire Lt. Jim Reynolds was in command, authorities said.

Neighbors said police also arrived at the scene quickly but could not enter the home because of the smoke.

More than a dozen other city firefighters also returned to work to assist in the effort, some filling in at the firehouse, the fire chief said.

From outside, the home did not appear ravaged by fire. But the damage inside was significant, officials said.

Authorities estimated that the home, which is worth just less than $110,000 according to city records, sustained $50,000 in damages.

Burn marks stained a kitchen windowpane. An air conditioner that neighbors said had been in a window had been pushed out on to the lawn.

Police tape blocked off the home's front and back doors. A child's stroller and an inflatable kiddie pool were among the items in the yard.

The Cox family has owned the two-story, gray-shingled home for 16 years, city records show.

Neighbors said Michael Cox, who worked as a laborer, lived in the home with his mother but that she was in Philadelphia visiting her daughter Friday. The woman's young grandchildren often come to visit, next-door neighbor Jim Landay said.

Landay, 50, went outside to work on his car at about 6:30 a.m. Friday and smelled smoke. He could not figure out where it was coming from and thought it must be that someone nearby was using a fireplace.

The back door of the Cox family's home was open at that time, although the screen door was closed. But the air conditioner in the kitchen window was on, which Landay said he found odd.

Later, as smoke poured out of the home, Landay watched with other neighbors as several firefighters carried the victim outside. He appeared to be wearing only jeans.

"He must have been dead for a while because he was rigid. I couldn't see any burns," neighbor Bill Mowbray said.

Mowbray, 58, who lives across the street, said there was no sign of trouble when he left to take his dog for a walk at about 6:45 a.m.

But when he returned he saw Kepley running around the Cox house, as smoke poured out of an attic vent.

There were no working smoke detectors in the house, the fire chief said.

Clearly shaken by the morning's tragedy - the city's second fatal blaze in eight months - Cwiklinski advised other city residents to install smoke detectors in their homes, calling the devices "the best life insurance you can buy."

"For the price of a pizza you can protect yourself," the fire chief said.

The victim's cause of death won't be clear before autopsy results are available, but there were no outward signs of physical trauma. He likely died of smoke inhalation while trying to escape, Cwiklinski said.

"The guys did a great job. We were in there in no time," the chief said. "Given the situation, the outcome was preordained. It's unfortunate."