Home fire where a woman was found dead being investigated

Officials investigate a house fire on SW 35th Place on Thursday morning. One person was found dead in the home.

CHARLES ROOP/Special to The Sun
Published: Friday, February 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 11:13 p.m.

Detectives want to question a man who was living at a southwest Alachua County home where a woman was found dead following a fire Thursday morning.

Firefighters discovered the woman's body in the front living room area of the residence at 1875 SW 35th Place, near the end of the road south of Bivens Arm, said Alachua County Sheriff's Office spokesman Sgt. Keith Faulk.

Detectives were awaiting results from the Medical Examiner's Office to confirm the woman's identity and to determine the cause of death.

"The victim was located about five feet in front of the front door and appeared to be working toward getting outside of the house," said Alachua County Fire Marshal Mark Smith.

Investigators did not immediately identify the woman, but neighbors worried Thursday about the welfare of Jessica Neville, who was in her 80s and a retired educator who had worked at area schools. Neighbors said Neville lived at the residence.

The elderly woman's son also had been staying at the home, according to neighbors.

Officers confirmed they want to question a man who had been living at the home, Robert A. Neville, 54, but did not elaborate on his identity.

Neighbors reported seeing smoke coming from the single-story concrete block house shortly after 8 a.m.

Power to the home was shut off, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Jessica Neville had returned to the home after repairs to the roof were completed several days ago, said a neighbor who did not want to be identified.

The same neighbor was one of at least two residents who called 911 after spotting the fire.

"I saw the fire just in the middle of the roof," the woman said.

The neighbor also said she warned firefighters someone could be trapped inside the home and showed them from the outside of the building where a bedroom was located. Another neighbor said he had seen the woman's son leaving the home about a half hour before residents first saw smoke coming from the house.

Firefighters were first contacted about the blaze at 8:09 a.m., Smith said. Firefighters from the city and county responded, with the first unit arriving at 8:18 a.m. The fire was reported under control 32 minutes later.

When firefighters arrived, about 75 percent of the masonry home was involved in the fire, according to Alachua County Fire Rescue.

"There was more than one room on fire in this house fire, and when we arrived on scene with flames showing through the roof, that's usually an indication that the fire has been able to burn for a long time," Smith said.

"Our indication is that, when the neighbor called 911 ... the fire was already through the roof. That put us at a disadvantage for fighting a fire like that."

About two hours after the fire was first reported, a gaping hole was evident where the repaired roof had once covered the home. Smoke and steam rose out of the hole with flames still visible from the road winding in front of the residence. Items from the house were spread around the front yard, covered to protect them.

Firefighters had removed the belongings as they searched the building for any additional residents and to prevent the items from fueling a rekindled blaze.

Because of damage to the home, firefighters could not tell if there were smoke detectors in the building that could have activated.

The State Fire Marshal's Office is investigating the cause and origin of the blaze.

Some neighbors voiced concern that firefighters were delayed in arriving at the home because of confusion over directions.

Homes along the road have varying street numbers, some in the high 1800s and others close by dropping to the 1700s. Roads that appear to take motorists directly to some parts of the neighborhood actually reach dead ends and don't provide access.

Smith said the district chief at the scene was familiar with the area and provided accurate directions to the fire. While some rescuers did initially end up on the wrong roads, others came straight into the neighborhood off SW 13th Street.

Following the blaze, Smith said fire officials have spoken with dispatchers to flag addresses in the neighborhood and note specific directions to these homes in case of emergency calls in the future.

"I still don't think it impacted the call," Smith said about the layout and street addresses in the neighborhood. "But we did go ahead and address that for the future."

Lise Fisher can be reached at 352-374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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