Devoted to her disabled daughter in life, a Crane Street mother perished with her child in the same bedroom early Monday as an intense blaze ravaged their home.
Family and neighbors said that devotion is what they will remember most about Maureen Gerrity, 47, who died from smoke inhalation along with her daughter, 19-year-old Katherine Rose O'Neill. After the birth of her daughter, who had Angelman Syndrome, a condition that left her severely developmentally delayed and non-verbal, Gerrity spent much of her time caring for her child and advocating for other children with special needs.
Katie, as the daughter was known, was a senior attending special classes at Fairfield Warde High School. She was a fun-loving and joyous girl, who loved music and attending all kinds of musicals especially on Broadway, according to her obituary.
In the aftermath of the fire, Paul O'Neill, Katie's father and Gerrity's former husband, said his daughter was "the light of my life" and that he would "miss her very much."
The heartbroken father had enjoyed a Sunday afternoon dinner with his daughter, just hours before the tragic fire, at a local restaurant.
Katie also liked adaptive skiing and won a gold medal for that sport in the Special Olympics, her obituary said.
"Katie's winning smile brightened every day for all who knew and worked with her," said Jim Coyne, the Warde headmaster. "She will be sorely missed at Fairfield Warde"
He said the high school's counseling department was available to support students and staff who "struggle with this tragic loss."
Neighbors on Monday said they also came to know that Gerrity was a devoted mother to her daughter, who was largely confined to a wheelchair.
Gerrity received a bachelor's degree at Franklin Pierce College and had been the head of the AIDS education program at the Norwalk Health Department before her daughter's birth. Tim Callahan, the health department director, said he remembered Gerrity, but said she had not worked there in more than 20 years.
Smoldering fire became inferno
The mother and daughter died even though firefighters were able to rescue them from a second-floor bedroom at 135 Crane St. -- battling intense flames and smoke -- within about eight minutes of their arrival.
The pair, transported to Bridgeport Hospital, were both later declared dead from smoke inhalation, according to the state Medical Examiner's Office.
Firefighters were alerted to the fire at 135 Crane St. just before 1 a.m. Monday by a neighbor who reported that flames were pouring out of Gerrity's house.
The cause of the fire at the two-story Cape was accidental, according to preliminary indications from fire investigators. The blaze apparently started in the first-floor living room, and gradually grew into an inferno.
However, investigators have not identified the specific cause of the fire's ignition because, according to Assistant Fire Chief Christopher Tracy, the intense heat from the blaze destroyed much of the potential evidence.
A neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said she was still awake and watching television sometime after 1 a.m. Monday when she heard a police car rush down Crane Street. When she looked outside the woman said she saw five fire trucks, two rescue vehicles and two ambulances in front of the Gerrity house.
"The flames were so high and the smoke so thick," the woman said of the blaze.
No smoke detectors; firefighter heroics
There were no working smoke detectors found in the house, officials said, but there were two carbon-monoxide detectors, which were activated by the fire.
The Crane Street fire was reported by a neighbor who heard shattering sounds when a front window of the house across the street blew out as the blaze gathered intensity.
The first firefighters on the scene encountered heavy flames on both the first and second floors of the two-story Cape, according to the fire report.
The neighbor also told firefighters that two occupants were believed to still be inside the burning building, which officials said likely had been smoldering for some time.
Assistant Fire Chief George Gomola, the commander at the scene, was the first to arrive and reported "heavy fire showing from the (front and right side) with two people trapped."
Gomola directed fire crews from Engines 1, 2, 3 and 4, and Ladder trucks 1 and 2, in attacking the fire and searching for occupants.
A ladder crew gained entry through a first-floor window and battled heavy heat and smoke to make their way to the second floor, while another ladder crew set up a ladder to the second floor bedroom window to vent the dwelling and press the search for anyone inside.
"We encountered extremely heavy fire condition on arrival," Gomola said in a statement later. "Through a coordinated team effort we were able to knock down the bulk of the fire while initiating an aggressive interior search, with Firefighters Jeff DeNitto, Will Malkin and John Calandriello pushing through extreme heat (moving up to) the second-floor stairwell to gain access to the bedroom where the occupants were located.
"They went above and beyond, with their efforts made possible by Lieutenant Eannotti's Engine 2 crew on fire attack and Lieutenant Corbo leading Company 3 on ventilation."
Westport firefighters also were dispatched to the scene to assist the emergency operations, while other fire crews from Westport and Bridgeport provided backup coverage for the town at Fire Stations 1 and 2.
Fire Marshal William Kessler, and members of his staff, detectives from the Police Department and representatives from the state Fire Marshal's Office stayed at the scene several hours later Monday investigating the cause of the fire..
Fatal fire legacy
The last house fire fatality in town was in 2009, when a late-night blaze destroyed two second-story units at the Quincy Condominiums on Hulls Highway. Shirley Smith, 88, was discovered dead in a neighboring unit and it was later determined she died from smoke inhalation.
An occupant of a car that erupted in flames at Tunxis Hill Park on Sept. 6, 2012, later died from his injuries, and an elderly resident of North Benson Road suffered second-degree burns over 30 percent of her body in an incident on March 27, 2013. That call came into 911 as an emergency medical call. She succumbed to her injuries the next month.
A wake for mother and daughter is scheduled to take place from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Spear-Miller Funeral Home, 39 South Benson Road.
A Mass of Christian Burial for Gerrity will take place at 10 a.m. Friday in Holy Family Church, 700 Old Stratfield Road. Burial will be private.
A Mass of Christian Burial for Katie will take place at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Marie Goretti Church, Lynnfield, Mass. Burial will follow at Forest Hills Cemetery in Lynnfield.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in memory of Maureen Gerrity and Katherine O'Neill be made to the Upper Northeast Angelman Syndrome Foundation (www.upneangels.com) or the Foundation for Angelman Syndrome Therapeutics (www.cureangelman.org).
For more information and the complete obituaries, visit: www.spearmillerfuneralhome.com