All of the houses on Poplar Road are large, were built in the late 1800s to early 1900s, and are surrounded by vast lawns, The narrow access road to reach them is more like a lane than a street, and the residences are so far apart that if Mrs. McGillicuddy wants to borrow a cup of sugar from Mrs. Rafferty, she has to get into her car to make the trip.
So when a fire occurs in one of these out-of-the way places, the response time for the fire department is never as rapid as it would be if the alarm had come in from a pizza parlor or bungalow in the center of town.
The fire in question was called in on a Friday at 2:27 p.m. by Rosalind Oxbridge of 9 Poplar Road (all names, etc. changed). Rosalind had been paying bills in her downstairs office when she smelled smoke. Her father, Luther Oxbridge, 89 years old, was confined to his bed with complications from diabetes, but he was stubborn and autocratic, and would not be denied his whiskey and his cigarettes. Rosalind, who had moved into Luther’s three-story Tudor after a messy divorce, relentlessly complained to him about his alcohol and tobacco consumption, to which he gruffly responded, “If you don’t like it, move out.”
The origin and cause of the fire that Charles G. King Associates was hired to investigate was never in question, because there was no doubt that old Luther had been smoking in bed.
Firefighters found him with an overflowing ashtray propped on his chest. It appeared that the cigarette he had been smoking dropped out of his fingers or fell out of the ashtray, and then ignited the blanket, sheets, comforter, and mattress. Given the amount of burning in the bedroom, the fire had smoldered rather than actually burst into flames.
Based on the amount of carbon monoxide found in his blood stream, Luther had clearly been alive when he was overcome by smoke and toxic fumes, and his horizontal position in the bed suggested that he had died in his asleep.
Burn patterns and soot throughout the room confirmed that the door and windows were closed at the time of the fire, and were not re-opened until firefighters entered … hose in hand. But by then, all of the oxygen had been consumed, and the fire had gone out.
Since Charlie was not engaged to investigate the origin and cause of the fire, why was he called in?
”Primarily,” explained the attorney who hired him, “to determine if a delay in the arrival of fire department apparatus caused Luther Oxbridge’s death, or if, regardless of when they got there, he would have died anyway.”
In other words, it was Charlie’s job to evaluate times. How long under normal circumstances would it take the fire department to get to 9 Poplar Road? How long if they had been impeded? And how long would it take a smoldering fire in a 10 foot by 14 foot bedroom to kill a mean old man?
Why, you may wonder, were these numbers so important?
Because of the slew of lawsuits that Rosalind Oxbridge filed shortly after her father’s death. There were three in total. The first was against our client, Longmeadow Tree Service.
Within minutes of Rosalind Oxbridge smelling smoke and dialing 911, one of Longmeadow’s trucks, after having cut down several dead trees at 5 Poplar Road, was maneuvering out of the driveway onto Poplar Road. Number 5 was two properties west of Luther Oxbridge’s house.
The Longmeadow Tree Service truck consisted of a cab, where the driver and passenger sat, followed by a fourteen-foot enclosed dump box, and behind that, a huge wood chipper with a feed chute and a long discharge spout that, after tree trunks, stumps, branches, and debris where shredded into small bits, shot them into the opening at the back of the dump box.
I described the truck in some detail, so you will understand why backing it out of the driveway required time-consuming caution and maneuvering. Not a lot of time, mind you. Five to eight minutes, at most.
Rosalind Oxbridge sued Longmeadow because, she claimed, the arrival of the fire department was delayed because their truck blocked Poplar Road for an “irresponsible, unconscionable, unprofessional, and inexcusable” length of time as it backed out of Number 5’s driveway.
AND … this delay not only precipitated Luther’s death, but also caused over $500,000 damage to expensive gifts and designer clothes that, over the years, she had collected.
Reduced to its essentials, the attorneys for Longmeadow Tree Service wanted Charlie to answer two questions:
ONE. How critical was that five to eight minute delay, and if the fire department had arrived sooner, could they have saved the mean old man’s life?
TWO. Would there have been less structural damage to the house and to the items Rosalind claimed had been destroyed inside the he house, had there not been a delay?
Based on Charlie’s twenty years of experience as a firefighter, seven years as a fire marshal, and more as an independent fire and arson consultant, the answers were fairly easy to come by:
RESPONSE TIME: Even if the fire department had arrived within ten minutes – the time it would take for a Tesla Model X to speed from the fire station to 9 Poplar Road -- Lucas Oxbridge would have expired from smoke inhalation long before the apparatus had pulled into the driveway.
STRUCTURAL DAMAGE: There was none to the house, and only superficial burning to the bed clothes, mattress, and bed frame, because the fire self-extinguished before the fire department arrived.
PROPERTY DAMAGE: The damage Rosalind claimed to her “expensive gifts and designer clothes” was suspect, as none of the items listed had been inside the deceased’s bedroom at the time of the fire. Therefore, it was a mystery to Charlie (and everyone else involved in the case) how they would have been affected at all.
Rosalind Oxbridge also sued the municipality in which she lived, claiming that the water pressure had been insufficient to fight the fire. This, even though the fire was out before firefighters got to the house, and they did not have to use their hoses at all.
She sued her insurance company, because they denied all of the expensive gifts, etc., that she claimed on her “Proof of Loss.”
And – I can’t wrap my mind around this one at all – she sued her father’s estate, claiming that because he died in a fire caused by his own carelessness, she was deprived of his companionship and her inheritance (the house) in the pristine condition to which she had been entitled.
My head hurts when I think about it.
In terms of drama, suspense, and forensics, this was one of our least interesting cases. Yet, from a psychological point of view, I found Rosalind herself … her avarice, her sense of entitlement, her peremptoriness, and her lack of empathy (normal people say “Thank you” to firefighters; they don’t sue them) … so fascinating, that this was a fire I bodily ripped from reality and fictionalized in one of my books.
Sure. I changed the father to a sister. I changed the Tudor house to a Queen Anne Victorian. I changed smoking carelessness to arson. I changed an accidental death to murder. I even changed Rosalind Oxbridge’s name to Faith Browning.
But Rosalind’s greed was so horrendous, so single-minded, so unadulterated … it was almost inspiring.
Of that, I changed nothing at all.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2022. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com