ST. PAUL (WCCO) – A couple married for decades was found dead after a fire that caved in the roof of a house in St. Paul Tuesday morning.
Crews responded to the scene at about 4:30 a.m. Tuesday after a driver going by noticed flames coming out of a home near Smith Avenue South and Morton Street West.
When firefighters got there, flames were roaring out doors and windows. Peter and Maureen Michalek, ages 71 and 66, never made it out of their bedrooms, according to St. Paul fire investigators.
“This is a deep tragedy for the family and for the firefighters who couldn’t rescue them from this,” said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard, who said the fire went undetected for up to an hour, calling it “unsurvivable.”
The couple’s niece, Heather Clemen, said a large abdominal tumor kept her aunt Maureen mostly confined to bed with IVs. She said her uncle Pete took care of his wife around the clock to keep her out of a nursing home.
“He loved her very much. They have been together for a long time, it’s a shock,” said Clemen. “She liked to joke, she liked to state her opinion and had no problem doing that. I remember my uncle being the more calm, laid back, go with the flow and for the two of them, it worked together, they complemented one another that way.”
Clemen said she believes her uncle tried to get to his wife, but was overcome by smoke. Nextdoor neighbor Jeanne Zimmer worried about the fire risk herself in a neighborhood of historic homes constructed out of wood.
The fire blew out the windows on her side of the home.
“Oh, I just feel so awful, I am sick to my stomach about what happened, how quickly everything burned and just the loss of two of our neighbors,” said Zimmer.
Zaccard said one of the couple’s sons recently installed several new smoke alarms in the home, worried because his mom was a smoker. Their adult children told firefighters they believe cigarettes are likely to blame.
Investigators said they won’t be able to pinpoint a cause until autopsies are complete. Zaccard said careless smoking is the leading cause of fire deaths in Minnesota.
Relatives and friends gathered outside of the home in shock. Bill Hickok, who has known the couple since he moved in in the 1970s, said it was hard to for him to see their relatives so distraught.
“Particularly their daughter who I’ve known since she was a little girl. The parents are gone, the house is gone. What do you do? Everything is gone,” he said. “You never expect think this is going to happen in your neighborhood.”
Relatives on the scene said the family has seen a lot of tragedy recently. The couple believed killed in the fire recently lost a son to a heart attack in the home. Authorities said the couple in the home had lived there for 40 years. They raised five children together and also leave behind grandchildren.