GAINESVILLE SUN

Woman is killed in house fire

Tim Lockette
Sun staff writer
lockettet@gvillesun.com

Firefighters pulled three space heaters out of the burned house, including one that was found with two containers of kerosene stored nearby. But investigators have yet to determine whether the heaters caused the blaze.

Investigators don't know yet what caused the house fire that killed a Gainesville woman Friday morning, but firefighters say a smoke detector could have saved her life.

"An earlier warning could have helped," said Gainesville Fire Rescue spokesman Michael Heeder. "We heard about this from neighbors who called to say this house was on fire. By the time your neighbors notice a fire, it's usually too late."

Firefighters received a call just after 7:30 a.m. reporting a fire at 2326 SE 11th Ave., the home of Mary Alice Haltiwanger, a 62-year-old woman who was disabled due to severe diabetes and arthritis.

By the time firefighters arrived, Heeder said, an intense fire was already blazing in the small house, with flames pouring out of the windows. Firefighters tried to get into the house using the only entrance not engulfed in flame - a side door just a few feet from a propane tank - but found the entrance blocked with assorted items that were apparently being stored in the house.

"There were clothes, collectibles, things like that," said Lt. Michael Cowart, the first firefighter to try entering the house.

After bringing the blaze under control, firefighters found a body in the house. Officials have yet to identify the body, but relatives say they're certain it was Haltiwanger.

"She was probably asleep when it started," said Haltiwanger's sister Irma Jean Duncan, who lives two doors down on SE 11th Avenue.

"She liked to sit up most of the night," she said. "But even if she was awake, she probably couldn't have got out. Her arthritis was too bad."

Duncan said her sister was a bird lover who owned several parakeets and other birds, all of which apparently died in the fire. She said Haltiwanger also had put together a large doll collection over the years.

"I guess you could say she was a pack rat," Duncan said. "She liked dolls, but she hung on to just about everything people gave her. She was one of those people who hates to throw things away."

Firefighters pulled three space heaters out of the burned house, including one that was found with two containers of kerosene stored nearby. But investigators have yet to determine whether the heaters caused the blaze.

"It was a very intense and hot-burning fire," Heeder said, holding a firefighter's helmet that had been charred in the blaze. "In fires like this, there's not a lot left to go by. We're being very cautious and very meticulous in this investigation."

Heeder said such intense fires usually occur when there is a lot of combustible material inside a building, though he said it was too early to comment on exactly how the fire progressed through the house.

The fire pre-empted a news conference Gainesville firefighters had planned to hold Friday morning to discuss fire safety during spells of cold weather. Officials at the National Weather Service say this week's cold snap is likely to continue into the weekend, with temperatures dipping into the low 30s tonight.

"Space heaters have been the leading cause of house fires in Gainesville this year," Heeder said. "We want people to be careful."

Tim Lockette can be reached at 374-5088 or lockett@ gvillesun.com