Man found in burned closet died from smoke

Colin Mulvany photo

Spokane Fire Department Asst. Chief Brian Schaeffer discribes how the fire in an apartment unit at 1203 W. 8th Avenue spread, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. Firefighters found the body of 50-year-old man obscured by clothing in a closet Thursday night.

January 25, 2013 11:07 a.m. - Updated: 3:09 p.m.

Authorities found a dead 50-year-old man in the closet of a flame-damaged Spokane apartment building Thursday night.

The victim, identified as John K. Reintjes, was found dead about 10 p.m. in his first-floor apartment unit at 1203 W. Eighth Avenue, said Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer.

He was lying in the fetal position on the closet floor and concealed by heavy clothing, which had fallen on top of him after the plastic hangers that held them melted from the intense heat.

Authorities believe Reintjes crawled into the closet to seek refuge from the heat and smoke after the fire started in a small back bedroom of his unit, where he was likely sleeping when the fire broke out.

People can quickly become disoriented when a room fills with smoke and noxious gases from burning furniture and other materials, Schaeffer said.

“It’s a real tragic incident,” said Chief Bobby Williams.

The Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office today gave the cause of death as smoke inhalation.

Fire crews responded about 4:19 p.m. Thursday. It initially appeared nobody had been injured.

After firefighters put the fire out, they let fire investigators process the scene before clearing out debris. They discovered the body after clearing out the room’s charred remnants. Reintjes lived there with his girlfriend, who was not home at the time.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but authorities believe it was accidental, started either by a lit cigarette or candle. The batteries had been removed from the home’s smoke detectors.

“It’s really important to make sure you have an operating smoke detector and you test that smoke detector,” Schaeffer said.

Fire damage was mostly contained to Reintjes’ unit, though three of the six units had smoke damage. The American Red Cross responded to assist the displaced tenants, who won’t be able to return until the homeowners make repairs.

(This story will be updated as additional information becomes available.)

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