AN OFF-DUTY police inspector has described the moment she tried to save the life of an elderly woman who died in a Littlehampton house fire at the weekend.
Inspector Clare McKnight, 46, of the neighbourhood policing team in Horsham, had been visiting a friend’s house a few doors away when she became aware of the fire on Saturday afternoon (October 10).
“I was just leaving to go home when I saw an elderly man at the door of his house calling for someone to phone for the fire service,” she said.
“I ran across to him and could see thick smoke coming out of the windows and thick smoke in the doorway.
“I shouted across the street for someone to dial 999 and then I tried to get into the house, but there was thick smoke and I could hardly breathe.
“I could not see anything either as it was too dark inside.”
Insp McKnight said the man told her that his wife was inside, and he tried to go back in to get his wife, who he said was also disabled.
She added: “By now I could see flames inside the house and heard crackling.
“For his own safety I couldn’t let the man go back in, so stopped him from entering the house. I carried him out of harm’s way with a female member of the public who had come to help. I looked into the house again but saw that the fire had seriously taken hold. I called for help from passers by and neighbours, and a man came to help me. Together we managed to carry the resident across the road to safety.
“I then shouted to people in the road to help evacuate the people in adjoining properties, which they did. Firefighters had arrived and so I told them there was someone trapped.”
Neighbours and passers-by also joined the search to try to save the woman after the fire broke out in Harwood Road shortly after midday and quickly took hold of the home.
“Other people had also tried to get into the house but it was clear that we weren’t going to be able rescue the woman due to the heat, flames and thick, thick smoke,” said Insp McKnight, adding two people had been taken to hospital to be treated for the effects of smoke inhalation.
She comforted one woman who was upset at having had to abandon the rescue attempt and said: “I told her that she had done everything possible to save the lady.”
West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service announced this afternoon (October 12) that it believes ‘smoking materials’ are behind the fire.
Firefighters described a ‘well-developed’ fire in the ground floor of the terraced house.
A” team wearing breathing apparatus entered the house and discovered the woman, who was in her 70s and has not yet been named, in the living room. Sadly, the woman was declared dead at the scene,” said a fire spokeswoman.
Fire investigation officer for West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service Mark Hayter said: “This was a tragic incident and our thoughts are with the lady’s family and friends at this time. We’d like to remind people that we offer free Home Safety Visits where firefighters visit homes by appointment to give fire safety advice and fit detection equipment where needed. We prioritise those who are elderly or more vulnerable.
“Nationally, smoking is still the biggest cause of death in accidental house fires. We are urging smokers to please stub cigarettes out properly and remember to dispose of hot ashes carefully.”
A post mortem examination to try to establish the exact cause of the woman’s death is due to open tomorrow (October 13).
It is then expected that an inquest will be opened and adjourned, at which stage the woman will be formally named.
Inspector McKnight said: “Clearly this has had a significant effect on the residents and local community. They helped tremendously in opening up their houses to injured people, helping to evacuate other houses, and assisting the emergency services.
“They did everything possible to keep the male resident and his neighbours safe from the fire. I can’t thank them enough. My thoughts are with the family, friends and community who are affected by this very sad event.”
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