Grandmother, 66, dies in Millers Falls house fire

  • Fire burns through the roof of a house at 20 Bridge St. in Millers Falls on Tuesday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • A firefighter on top of a Turners Falls fire truck aims water into the burning structure at 20 Bridge St. in Millers Falls on Tuesday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Firefighters battle a house fire at 20 Bridge St. in Millers Falls on Tuesday evening. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The aftermath of a second-alarm fire that killed Judy Verchot, 66, and necessitated front-side demolition to a two-family residence at 20 Bridge St. in Millers Falls. STAFF PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

  • What remains of the house that burned Tuesday evening at 20 Bridge St. in Millers Falls. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • What remains of the house that burned Tuesday evening at 20 Bridge St. in Millers Falls. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 11/9/2022 11:54:26 AM

MILLERS FALLS — A woman who died in a fire that engulfed a two-family home at 20 Bridge St. on Tuesday was identified as Judy Verchot, according to her granddaughter Janelle Verchot.

The 66-year-old woman was located within the home and she was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the Department of Fire Services.

“We’re destroyed just to know that she suffered that hard,” Verchot said of her grandmother while at the scene on Wednesday. “I’m just praying that the smoke got to her first before anything.”

Two cats were also found dead, according to Verchot.

“On behalf of the Turners Falls Fire Department, I want to express our deepest condolences to the victim’s family and loved ones,” Turners Falls Fire Chief Todd Brunelle said in a statement issued by the Department of Fire Services. “This is a tragedy for them and for our community.”

A call reporting the fire came in at 4:44 p.m. and the Turners Falls Fire Department responded and struck a second alarm based on preliminary reports of occupants trapped inside the home, according to Jake Wark, spokesperson for the Department of Fire Services.

“First responding crews observed heavy fire conditions on arrival,” Wark explained previously. “They immediately began an aggressive attack on the fire, which was contained to the building of origin but caused catastrophic damage and structural collapse.”

Preliminary evidence suggests that the cause of the fire does not appear suspicious, according to fire officials. The incident remains under investigation by the Turners Falls Fire Department, Montague Police, and State Police assigned to the State Fire Marshal’s Office and Northwestern District Attorney’s Office.

Verchot, who lives in Ware and was not at the scene when the fire started, said while her family is unsure what caused the fire, it is likely that the fire started in a corner of the two-family house where her grandmother resided. She noted that there was a heater in that part of the house that may have been involved.

Verchot’s mother, who declined to comment, and her husband, Jacobo Roque, were home when the fire started and were able to escape, according to Verchot. Six-year-old Colton Roque, Judy Verchot’s grandson, was rescued by passersby before first responders arrived.

All of the occupants who escaped were taken to Baystate Franklin Medical Center with high carbon dioxide levels, Verchot reported.

Harry Chapin, Judy Verchot’s boyfriend, was another resident of the house and was driving home when the fire started, according to Verchot.

James Hawkins, a Bernardston resident and former Gill firefighter, said he was driving by the Bridge Street building when he noticed the blaze. He said he got out of his vehicle and kicked in the doors of the residence before saving Roque, who was trapped inside.

Joining Hawkins was Lee Laster, a retired Montague police officer and neighbor, who said he was putting up shelves in his home when he “heard some screaming” outside. At first he thought it was just some people making some noise in the street, but upon looking out another window he noticed something was wrong.

Laster said he and Hawkins broke into the home and began helping the inhabitants escape.

He recalled he was told there was another person in a different room, but upon breaking through the door, he said the conditions were so dangerous that he couldn’t proceed.

“I got on my hands and knees and started crawling in,” Laster recounted by phone late Tuesday night. “It was so thick and black and I couldn’t see anything.”

While he said he didn’t know the family that well, Laster said he talked to them in the past when he is out doing yard work.

“It’s just tragic, really tragic,” Laster said.

Having just retired from the Montague Police Department last year, Laster said it was his emergency training that kicked into gear.

“My whole job was to help people, it’s just who I am. … I don’t regret anything I did. I am shook up about it,” Laster said. “I’ll pray for the family.”

The front of the building was torn down by an excavator late Tuesday night. While the Department of Fire Services reported that the displaced residents are being assisted with shelter and other services, Verchot said on Wednesday that her family has no immediate plans for housing. She said that the Red Cross has not been communicative with them, despite the Department of Fire Services announcing that the organization has been requested.

“This is our family house,” she said. “I grew up here.”

Verchot encourages members of the community to make donations to the family at gofund.me/77725ce8.

The Gill-based Travel Kuz bus service is also serving as a collection site to accept donations for the family. Donations of food, clothing, shoes and toys are encouraged. Clothing sizes needed include men’s XL, men’s large, women’s three to four XL, and boy’s eight. Shoe sizes needed include men’s size five, seven and 11, youth boys size nine and women’s 12. Dinosaur-themed toys are particularly appreciated.

“They’re folks in our community,” Travel Kuz CEO Pam Reipold said of her organization’s motivation to help. “The kids ride our school buses.”

Lastly, those interested in dropping off non-cash donations can bring them to Mary Cichanowicz at 24 Bridge St. Verchot can be reached at 413-535-7504 for further donation inquiries.

“We are asking for any help at all,” Verchot wrote on the GoFundMe page. “Even a prayer.”

Reach Julian Mendoza at 413-930-4231 or jmendoza@recorder.com. Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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