Fire in cluttered apartment kills Forest Hills woman

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A retired school teacher was killed Sunday morning in a fire fueled by stacks of newspapers inside her Forest Hills apartment after she apparently fell asleep while cooking something on the stove, authorities said.

Carolyn Brown, a 72-year-old retired special education teacher, died in the early morning fire in her sixth-floor apartment at the Berkeley at 111-09 76th Rd., which roused her neighbors from their sleep, authorities said. She was found dead in her apartment.

Edwin Roman, Brown’s next door neighbor for the past 13 years, said he called 911 at 8:41 a.m. after his dog woke him up and he saw “thick black smoke pouring out of my closet.”

He said he banged on Brown’s door, but she did not hear him. Roman then ran to wake up his neighbors on the sixth floor and those who lived below Brown’s apartment.

The cause of fire, which was contained within Brown’s corner two-bedroom apartment, was still being investigated by the fire marshals. Neighbors said the FDNY suspected the fire was started by food left on the stove.

The medical examiner had not yet determined the cause of death by presstime.

The Fire Department said the first alarm in the two-alarm fire was called in at 8:42 a.m. It took 25 units and 106 firefighters before the blaze was extinguished about an hour later, the FDNY said. One firefighter suffered minor injuries.

Officials said the stacks and stacks of papers in the apartment fed the fire, which gutted Brown’s apartment, and recalled the Collier’s mansion. The Collier brothers, who died in the 1940s, shared a brownstone on upper Fifth Avenue in Harlem stuffed to the gills with debris.

“She collected newspapers and piled them in stacks,” said Roman. “She was a very intelligent woman. I don’t understand why she collected things.”

He said there was a thin passageway between the stacks of papers and magazines collected for more then 20 years. Roman said Brown lived alone and never married.

A visibly shaken neighbor described Brown as a woman who was full of life and wanted to see and do it all. She said Brown loved to travel and engage in whale watching. They spent many hours talking about a trip Brown had taken to India.

Brown, she said, was very well read and had a fondness for science fiction books. Some of her favorite authors were Dick Francis, Evan Hunter and P.D. James.

She said Brown also loved to go to the library and frequented many library book sales where she would buy books and donate them to senior centers, schools and after-school programs.

“I am talking about a lady who was marvelous,” she said as her eyes welled up with tears. “She had a mind that was wide open to possibilities to travel, help people, sit and do it all.”

She called Brown a dedicated teacher who would follow the progress of former students as they got older. If one of her former students was having trouble, she said, Brown would not hesitate to tutor them.

Brown collected T-shirts from everywhere she had been, the neighbor said, and she was planning to give Brown a shirt with a quote from Marshall McLuhan, which epitomized her:

“Any one who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know a thing about either.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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