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Smoker with Oxygen Tank Killed in House Fire

The Philadelphia Inquirer

May 29, 2011

A man who smoked despite relying on oxygen was killed and his wife was injured in a fire that ripped through a ground-floor garden apartment in Camden County late Tuesday, officials and neighbors said.

The man, who was confined to his bed, was smoking when the fire started in a bedroom at the Bellmawr Manor complex on Kings Highway in Bellmawr, said the Camden County acting chief fire marshal, Paul Sandrock. He said careless smoking caused the blaze.

A dog named Rocky was being called a hero by its owner because its incessant barking helped his wife and his two daughters escape their second-floor apartment.

Authorities did not release the names of the victims Wednesday, but neighbors and a relative identified them as James Beck, 60, and his wife, Frances, 51, who lived in Apartment 181.

Frances Beck was taken to Cooper University Hospital with smoke inhalation and burns. She had been in the living room while her husband was smoking in the bedroom, Sandrock said.

James Beck served in the Vietnam War and was a former carpenter, said a stepson, Stephen Nigro.

Nigro said his stepfather had trouble breathing and was being treated at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center.

Maria Martorana, who lives next door to the Becks, said she and Frances Beck had been chatting on the porch on a warm night when they parted company about 11 p.m.

A short time later, Martorana said, she heard a loud noise.

Martorana said James Beck apparently triggered the blast by smoking while on oxygen in a bedroom.

“He was always smoking,” Martorana said. “He smoked himself to death.”

Sandrock said authorities were investigating whether the oxygen tank was being used at the time of the fire. Martorana said Frances Beck was burned trying to reach her husband.

James Pokrywka, an upstairs neighbor, was at work at a grocery across the street when the fire broke out. Rocky, his Jack Russell-pug mix, or “jug,” kept barking until their 8-year-old daughter awoke, said Pokrywka’s wife, Michelle.

Michelle Pokrywka then woke the couple’s 1-year-old daughter and scrambled out of the apartment with the girls and Rocky — their hero.

The Bellmawr Fire Department extinguished the blaze within about eight minutes of firefighters’ arrival, Sandrock said. No working smoke detectors were found, he said.

The blaze was confined to the Becks’ apartment, which was gutted, but surrounding residences suffered smoke and water damage.

Residents of those apartments and about eight others were displaced by the fire. Among them was Martorana, who was taken in by neighbors across the street and was waiting to get back into her home to retrieve her medicine and oxygen tank.

A service of YellowBrix, Inc.

© 2009, YellowBrix, Inc.


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