My company was in on this call.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Woman rescued, husband killed in Magnolia fire

Courier-Post Staff

Two quick-thinking police officers saved the life of a 68- year-old woman who was trapped on the roof of her porch while her house was in flames early Friday morning.

The fire claimed the life of her 71-year-old husband, George Fleming, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Magnolia Police Sgt. John Kirkbride and Officer Tommy Picou climbed atop a police vehicle to reach Ruth Fleming after heat and flames prevented them from entering the home at 335 Evesham Road.

"It was just instinct," said Kirkbride, an eight-year veteran, who thought of backing the Ford Expedition to the front of the yellow, two-story house.

"We knew we had to get her down, she was our main priority," said Picou, an officer for 1 1/2 years.

Both regret not being able to save George Fleming.

Ruth Fleming suffered cuts on her arms and minor smoke inhalation. She was in critical but stable condition Friday night at Kennedy Hospital, Stratford. Her husband was found in the second-floor bedroom in the front of the house above the porch roof.

The fire, said Camden County Fire Marshall Paul Hartstein, was caused by a porcelain pan left unattended on a gas burner on the stove.

The couple, both hearing-impaired, couldn't have heard the smoke detector on the first floor near the kitchen where the fire started, Hartstein said.

Ruth Fleming was awakened by the smell of smoke and was able to break a window and climb onto the roof, Hartstein said.

Next-door neighbor Elaine Furniss heard her barking dog, Bandit. She said it was about 3:20 a.m.

"It was an unusual bark, like a howling," said Furniss, a retired teacher. She said she felt something was wrong although she didn't hear anything.

As she looked out her second-floor windows, she spotted Fleming on the porch roof. She called 9-1-1 and ran outside. She said Fleming was on her hands and knees, barefoot and wearing a white, short-sleeved nightgown.

Firefighters were dispatched at 3:33 a.m., Hartstein said. Six local fire departments responded to the one-alarm blaze, which was brought under control at 4:40 a.m.

Neighbors and friends remembered George Fleming as a nice, quiet man, a good mechanic who would fix cars for anyone who asked.

"He never charged anybody a nickel," said 82-year-old Jack Reid, who knew him for 58 years.

Neighbors called him Jack. They said he worked for many years maintaining the machinery at a milk bottling plant in Burlington County.

"He was a crackerjack in that business," said Reid.

A thin man, about 5 feet, 8 inches, who always wore dungarees and a flannel shirt, George Fleming never complained or said anything about anybody.

"I have never heard him get mad," said Reid.

Elaine Murphy-Coleman, a Magnolia special police officer, has been best friends with Darcy Keubler, one of his two daughters, since childhood.

She said he raised his daughters after a divorce. "He was an awesome parent," she said.

He was from West Virginia, "a Southern-type guy," she said. He was a good-looking man with salt-and-pepper hair and blue eyes. "He loved to race cars," she said.

Murphy-Coleman believes he was married to Ruth, "a sweetheart," for about 25 years.

Reid's wife Sheila said Ruth kept the house "like a showpiece" and decorated outside for every holiday.

Murphy-Coleman said Ruth took care of George at home since he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's about three years ago.

"She was wonderful with him," said Murphy-Coleman.