Fire Officials Blame Clutter, Nailed-Shut Door for Elderly N.Y. Couple’s Death

January 4, 2008

The elderly couple’s windows were barred, and their front door was nailed shut, apparently because the two feared for their safety. Inside, their home was filled with 5-foot-tall heaps of debris.

The clutter and makeshift security measures turned the home into a death trap Wednesday when a fast-moving fire killed them both, officials said.

Caroline Gorynski, 88, was found dead in a first-floor bedroom of her Yonkers home, in a middle-class neighborhood near the New York City line. Her husband, Leo, 87, was found in a front hallway and died at a hospital, police said.

The fire started when space heaters ignited some of the clothing, papers and other material piled 5 feet high throughout the house, said Deputy Fire Chief John Flynn. He said some clothing lay directly on top of the heaters.

The clutter created hazardous conditions for firefighters, Flynn said.

“The debris was piled higher than their heads,” he said. “There were just little narrow alleyways for them to crawl through as they searched the building.”

Firefighters called it a “Collyers’ mansion,” Flynn said, alluding to Homer and Langley Collyer, brothers who were found dead in a Harlem brownstone in 1947 amid tons of junk they had amassed over decades.

Police had to tear the front door off the Gorynskis’ house because it had been nailed and screwed to its frame. The windows had been secured shut with metal rods, Flynn said. He called the measures “a kind of homemade security system.”

Yonkers police spokesman Capt. Michael Murphy said there were no reports of crimes at the house at least since June 1998. But less than two weeks ago, there were 10 or 11 “hangup calls” to 911 from the house. An officer sent to investigate said the Gorynskis were safe, but Leo Gorynski was angry because their phone service had been cut off – except for 911. Police left word with the county’s Adult Protective Services agency to see whether it could help with the phone, Murphy said.

Flynn said that although the nailed front door delayed firefighters with a hose by a few minutes, it did not hold up the search for victims from the back of the house and likely was not a factor in the deaths, given the speed of the fire.

The Gorynskis had used their garage to come and go, Flynn said. Some neighbors said they had been in poor health and had no children.
“It’s sad,”said neighbor Owen McSweeney. “Nobody should have to go under these circumstances.”

Most neighbors said they didn’t see much of the couple, but McSweeney said Caroline Gorynski had welcomed him to the neighborhood “and always would be sharing stories about when they first met many years ago.”

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