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Fire kills legally blind woman, 81 Stove ignites clothes; son can't save her

An 81-year-old legally blind grandmother died this week from injuries suffered when her clothes caught fire while she was cooking in her Buffalo townhouse two weeks ago.

Cecelia Powenski suffered third-degree burns to 30 percent of her upper body, face and arms. The widowed mother of four and grandmother of six died from her injuries Wednesday morning in Erie County County Medical Center's burn unit, where she had been since the Jan. 11 fire.

Powenski was standing in front of the stove to cook her lunch in her home at 82 Debra Lane, near Hertel Avenue in the Black Rock-Riverside neighborhood.

Her family members believe her baggy, long-sleeved clothing became caught on the stove's burner and ignited just before 2 p.m.

"She was cooking at her stove, and her clothes caught on fire," said Lt. Sal Colangelo, commander of the city's fire marshal's office. "It's tragic. It's just an unfortunate accident."

Thursday, her son remembered the horrific accident that claimed his mother's life.

"I heard her crying out, and I ran downstairs as fast as I could," Matthew Powenski, 47, said. "I was in shock. Her whole sleeve was on fire. Her [clothing] was melting everywhere . . . The faucet was on so she had tried to put herself out."

Her son tried to use his bare hands to pat down the flames.

"I tried everything," he recalled. "I tried to take her clothing off, I tried to pat her down . . . The fire got worse and engulfed her whole top. I ran and got a gallon of milk in the fridge and doused her, and the flames went out."

Mother and son were rushed to Erie County Medical Center. Matthew Powenski suffered third-degree burns to his hands and left leg and was released that night from the hospital's burn unit.

Family members said that despite her impaired vision, Mrs. Powenski was very independent and insisted on cooking her lunches and doing her laundry.

"It was hard to get her to slow down," said Powenski, who lived with his mother and cared for her. "I always offered, but she had to do it herself. She would let me cook dinner, but she wanted to cook her own lunch. It was hard to keep her away from the stove . . . I even took the knobs off the stove when I was going out."

Mrs. Powenski became legally blind at age 10 because of a brain tumor, but she could see shadows and perceive light, according to her family members. A stay-at-home mother, she also enjoyed bowling with a league for the blind until a few years ago.

Her late husband, Peter, a piano tuner, also was legally blind.

Matthew Powenski is hoping that his mother's death will help other Western New Yorkers with elderly parents. He is urging people to keep a close watch on them -- especially when they're cooking.

"She was getting older, and her memory and responses were slowing," said Powenski. "She always thought her reflexes could handle it, but it's too bad that it was otherwise."

She is the city's first fire fatality this year; there were three fire deaths last year.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in St. Florian Catholic Church, 587 Hertel Ave.

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com

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