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Elderly couple die in South Jersey house fire

The cause of the raging blaze in Browns Mills is under investigation.

Firefighters battle a three alarm junkyard fire at Tulip and Somerset streets in Kensington, Tuesday, July 10, 2018.
Firefighters battle a three alarm junkyard fire at Tulip and Somerset streets in Kensington, Tuesday, July 10, 2018.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK

Authorities continued their investigation Wednesday into what caused the fire that left an elderly couple dead and another family member critically injured as flames raged through their single-story house in Browns Mills, Burlington County.

Authorities were called to the 500 block of Willow Boulevard about 8:45 p.m. Tuesday and quickly pulled three people from the single-story residence, and then battled the flames for an hour.

One of the victims was identified as 92-year-old Lore Smith. A family acquaintance said Smith's 94-year-old longtime companion, who lived in the house, also died. Smith was pronounced dead at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center at Deborah Hospital on Tuesday night, authorities said. The identity of her companion, who was pronounced dead at the scene, has not been released because his relatives had not been identified.

Smith's son was airlifted to Temple University Hospital, where he was placed on a respirator, said Joel Bewley, a spokesperson for the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office. He was in stable condition Wednesday, Bewley said.

A woman identified by 6ABC as Tina Muccie told reporters she was a caregiver who lived in the home and tried to get the couple out of the house, but was overwhelmed by heavy smoke before she escaped. A next-door neighbor, whose home was damaged from the heat, told the station he also tried to save the couple after seeing the flames, but could not get through the smoke.

Mrs. Smith, who was born in Germany, married an American stationed in the U.S. Army in Europe and the couple came to nearby Fort Dix as young newlyweds, said her longtime friend Alberta Johnson. The couple later divorced and he relocated to Baltimore, where he died several years ago, she said.

Johnson said she worked with Mrs. Smith for many years as supervisors at the New Lisbon Developmental Center in the Pinelands, a state facility for men and women with developmental disabilities. They would often bicker about minor issues, but would quickly patch things up.

"What I liked about her is that she never got really mad at you," said Johnson. "She was something else."

Although both women retired years ago, they remained close friends and kept in touch, said Johnson, 91, of Willingboro. Because both were former military wives, they called each other by their last names, she said.

Johnson said she last saw Mrs. Smith, who was suffering from poor health, several months ago when she visited her friend in a hospital. The two were hoping to travel to Germany so that Mrs. Smith could visit her family.

"She was one of the best friends I ever had," said Johnson, choking back tears. "I don't believe she's gone. I really don't."

Claudia Storicks, who lives in Pemberton Township, said she knew the elderly man and described him as a "nice guy" who had at least two living children.

Pemberton Fire Chief Craig Augustoni said that when police arrived at the home they attempted to rescue those inside after a neighbor reported hearing screams, but could not help them because of the flames. Firefighters brought the couple and the injured victim outside.

"Once we [firefighters] got here, it was rather rapid in getting them out," Augustoni said.

On Tuesday night, firefighters battled the blaze in the first cold snap of the season. When authorities arrived at the scene, the home was engulfed in flames, with heavy smoke throughout the structure. On Wednesday, the house and brick chimney were still standing, but much of the interior was destroyed. Charred studs could be seen from the street as investigators picked through the debris and took photos.

Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this report.