Peter Dommer awoke in his Bramblewood Lane home in East Amherst shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday to the sound of crackling and a car horn beeping. He looked out the window and saw what appeared to be his senior-aged next-door neighbor honking the car horn in her driveway in an attempt to call for help, her home engulfed in flames. He called 911.
Moments earlier, Adam Bruce woke up across the street to see an orange glow filling his home. He threw on a sweatshirt and sneakers, rushed across the street and saw the first firefighter on the scene helping the woman away from the front of the house. Grabbing her ankles, he and the East Amherst firefighter, who lives nearby, carried her to the other side of the road.
Bruce told the firefighter that another man lived in the house at 177 Bramblewood Lane, but the firefighter determined there was no safe way to enter.
"The flames were intense," Bruce said.
Police said a resident, believed to be the woman's adult son, was found dead inside the home. The woman was hospitalized at Erie County Medical Center with burns and smoke inhalation, and put into a medically induced coma, according to Scott Wehrlin, East Amherst Fire Chief. Officials did not release the woman's condition.
The names of the mother and the son are being withheld, pending notification of their family.
Police are investigating reports that the home’s gas had been shut off since August and that the family had been heating the home with their fireplace or another alternative method. If that is true, it would be the second time in days that a person has died in an affluent Western New York community in what officials say could be a weather-related incident tied to financial circumstances.
Lawrence Bierl, a 69-year-old homeless man, was found dead from hypothermia in an NFTA Metro Bus shelter early Thursday.
"People are mistaken if they make assumptions that East Amherst is only comprised of families that are financially affluent," said Town Supervisor Brian Kulpa. "We work hard governmentally and socially to try to address fiscal distress when we are aware of it."
If a resident is struggling financially, systems are in place to help, he said.
Saturday morning, as firefighters were putting out hot spots in the charred remains of the house on Bramblewood, neighbors said the condition of the home had been deteriorating. A tree was growing through the gutters. The lawn was rarely cut, they said, and a window was left open throughout the winter.
Dommer grew up next door and used to see the male resident outside smoking. He said he has rarely seen the female resident in recent years and that she was in a wheelchair the last time he did see her.
He sometimes helped the male resident work on his car, which was more than 15 years old and often broke down.
"I figured they were struggling," Dommer said.
The male resident was a former Marine and may have had some type of injury that prevented him from doing physical work, neighbors said. He mentioned doing some investment ventures from home, along with running some kind of online hair care business, they said.
A neighbor on the other side of the home, who moved next door to the family in 1996, said he didn't really know the son or the mother.
'It was a 'say hello' kind of thing when you were mowing the lawn," said Bruce Martha. "They were very nice, but they weren't social."
Diane Smith has lived a few doors down from the family since the subdivision, called the Pines East, was built in the 1980s. She and husband Derek did not know the family well.
"They kept to themselves," she said. "It's just very sad. My heart goes out to them."
The fire was reported at 1:13 a.m. at 177 Bramblewood Lane, which is off Casey Road. It is being considered a total loss. Amherst police were assisted by East Amherst, Swormville, Getzville, Main-Transit and Clarence Center fire departments and Twin City Ambulance.
Authorities were withholding the names of the victims pending notification of family members, police said.
The fire may have started in the chimney, Wehrlin said, but the cause will be difficult if not impossible to determine, considering the extent of the damage.
"It had a really good jump on us. It had reached probably four rooms before we got here," Wehrlin said.