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Local man dies in house fire
Burning cigarette blamed for blaze
Family members salvage items from the scene of a fatal house fire on Terry Street in Martinsville on Saturday. Alvah Roberts, 82, died at the scene of the fire, according to city Fire Marshal Ted Anderson. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Sunday, February 17, 2013
By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer
A burning cigarette is believed to have caused a fire that left an elderly Martinsville man dead on Friday night.
Alvah Roberts, 82, died at the scene of the fire on Terry Street in Martinsville, according to city Fire Marshal Ted Anderson and Roberts’ grandson, Walter Chisholm.
The fire started in a bedroom, possibly from a smoldering cigarette, and it appeared Roberts was attempting to make it to a back door when he passed out, Anderson said his investigation determined.
The fire, at 108 Terry St. behind the Community Market on Fayette Street, was reported by a passerby at 10:26 p.m., according to Anderson and Martinsville Fire and EMS records.
A bystander and police officer who arrived at the scene both tried to enter the house but “the smoke and heat were so intense they couldn’t. They could get as close as the door, but that’s it,” Anderson said.
Flames were billowing out the bedroom window, he said, adding that is where the fire is believed to have started.
“I don’t know what he was doing prior to the fire. Maybe he was asleep and awoke to the fire,” Anderson said.
The bedroom is on the front left side of the house, and the front door in the center of the home would have been a closer exit than the back door on the back right side of the house. Neither Anderson nor relatives at the scene Saturday morning were sure why Roberts apparently was heading for the back door when he passed out.
There was some speculation at the scene that the fire was too intense by the front door for him to get out there.
Anderson agreed that the front door may have been closer to the fire and Roberts was trying get away from it. Also, in a fire such as Friday’s, he said one breath would make someone disoriented. The family also told him that Roberts did not see well.
“In that situation, he wouldn’t have been able to see well anyway,” Anderson added.
Anderson said he thinks Roberts was in a room other than the bedroom, but the smoldering cigarette had been left on the bed.
“A cigarette burns over 400 degrees. It can smolder for hours, particularly if it is wrapped up in something” such as bed linens, he said. Once the flames start, the fire doubles in size every 60 seconds, quickly engulfing an area, he added.
Because no foul play is suspected, Anderson said he thinks the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Roanoke may do toxicology tests but not a full autopsy.
The bedroom was destroyed, Anderson said, but Saturday morning relatives were able to retrieve some items from other parts of the house.
Roberts lived alone in the house that the city had built as part of a neighborhood rehabilitation project, according to Lois Roberts of Martinsville, the daughter of Alvah Roberts. Previously, he lived in an older home on the same property that was torn down to build the new house, she said.
Anderson said the house was built in 2007.
Lois Roberts said she drove by her father’s house earlier Friday evening. Lights were on in the living room and kitchen and there was nothing out of the ordinary, she said Saturday morning at the fire scene.
Later that evening a friend called her niece to tell her that her grandfather’s house was on fire, and they rushed to the scene, Roberts said.
Alvah Roberts had three daughters, one son, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, all of whom live in this area, according to Chisholm. On Saturday, they were coming together to support each other, he added.
Roberts had cooked in Martinsville school cafeterias for many years, cooked at the Williamsburg Restaurant, worked at Tultex and helped at the Community Storehouse, Chisholm said. He later “retired and relaxed,” his grandson added.
Chisholm called his grandfather “fun to be around, telling jokes and stories. He made everybody laugh. He loved family get-togethers.”
If Roberts did not cook for those gatherings, he would bring something, Chisholm said.
“He was famous for his chicken and dumplings,” he added.
Roberts also was in good health, Chisholm said, and he frequently walked up and down the road.
This is the first fire fatality in Martinsville since 2010, when there were four, Anderson said.
He added that he has worked at least three fire fatalities that were related to smoking materials.
Responding to the scene Friday were the Martinsville Fire and EMS, Collinsville Volunteer Fire Department, Stone Ambulance, Martinsville Police Department and Martinsville Electric Department, Anderson said.
City firefighters were on the scene until 12:30 a.m. Saturday, according to department records.