Did detector sound in fatal Bridgewater fire?

Smoke detectors are not all created equal. A detector test conducted by the Hook with assistance from local fire officials revealed in June that ionization models may not activate until it's too late to escape.

A teenaged woman is dead and her boyfriend remains hospitalized after a house fire earlier this week in Bridgewater. The fire broke out early on Monday morning, February 16, and firefighters arrived on the scene around 7:30am, according to Rockingham County Assisant Fire Marshal Mike Armstrong. Twenty-year-old Johnny Corson Jr. had already escaped the blaze at 211 S. Main Street.

According to Armstrong, Corson said he awoke in a second story bedroom to smoke so thick "I couldn't see my hands in front of my face." He made his way out of the house; 17-year-old Nichole Nicholson, however, did not, and Armstrong wonders if her unfamiliarity with the layout of the house contributed to her inability to escape. Corson lived there with his parents, who rented the house.

The cause of the fire has not yet been determined, but Armstrong says investigators believe it started in the first floor living room immediately below the bedroom where Corson and Nicholson were sleeping. The century-old house was equipped with a kerosene heater instead of a modern HVAC system, and Armstrong says holes were cut in floors and ceilings to allow heat to circulate. In this case, those holes may also have allowed smoke to spread faster. In addition, Armstrong says, there was an electric heater in the living room. Investigators plan to return to the scene early next week with electrical engineers to try to definitively determine the cause of the blaze.

The house had one smoke detector on the first floor, and Armstrong says there was a battery, but investigators don't know if it functioned. As extensively reported in previous Hook stories, 90 percent of smoke detectors in American homes are ionization models, which may not respond to smoke from a smoldering fire until actual flames break out, leaving residents exposed to poisonous gases including carbon monoxide and cyanide. In addition, they are prone to false alarms, which often lead residents to disable them.

Corson, who remains in intensive care at UVA hospital, is not reachable by phone in his room, and his parents were not available to take calls in the hospital's family lounge.

According to reports in the Harrisonburg Daily News Record, investigators were granted a warrant to remove items from the house, including drug paraphernalia described as a "smoking device," but Armstrong stresses nothing discovered suggests the fire was anything other than accidental in nature, and he regrets any implication otherwise suggested by the warrant.

"[Corson] and his parents are obviously very upset that this young girl lost her life in their home," says Armstrong. "I don't think it's going to come back to something they had any control over."