FAIRFIELD TOWNSHIP — Walter Burton never thought his visit home would include a frantic attempt to save an elderly woman’s life.
On Monday night, Burton kicked in the back door of a burning, smoke-filled home on Walden Drive to try and reach 81-year-old Martha Hatch, who was trapped inside.
Burton said he made it part of the way into the kitchen before smoke blew him back out the door. He said he wound up in the back yard, where 84-year-old Irvin Hatch sat at a picnic table, looking in disbelief at his burning home. Irvin Hatch had jumped to safety from a second-story bedroom window, State Police said.
“He kept saying, ‘My wife is in there. My wife is in there,’” said Burton, a 39-year-old Atlanta resident who was visiting family members who live next to the Hatches’ home.
Irvin Hatch’s pleas prompted Burton to make one more attempt to reach Martha Hatch. Burton said he and another man broke out a window to the first-floor bedroom where Irvin Hatch said he last saw his wife.
The effort failed, foiled by too much heat, smoke and flames. Martha Hatch died in the house in which she and her husband had lived since the late 1960s.
Irvin Hatch was taken to Cooper University Hospital in Camden. His grandson, Edward Hatch Jr., said Irvin Hatch escaped serious injuries, but suffered something worse than broken bones.
“He is traumatized,” said Edward Hatch, who was on the property Tuesday afternoon, looking through the rubble and thanking Burton for his efforts.
Residents said the fire began about 11 p.m. Monday, and the Hatches’ home was engulfed in flames by the time firefighters, including the Gouldtown Fire Department, arrived. State Police said the blaze took about two hours to bring under control, and firefighters remained at the scene until about 4 a.m. Tuesday.
A cause for the fire was not available. State Police said the fire remains under investigation.
Local residents were shocked. They described the neighborhood as quiet and uneventful, and one where its residents have known each other for decades.
The fire at the Hatch household took the life of a woman whom residents said they grew to respect over the years.
“Nice people,” Michael Allen, who lives next to the Hatch home, said of the couple. “Always willing to lend a hand.”
Allen said the fire was particularly painful to him because he grew up with members of the Hatch family. He said seeing the house burn was something he will never forget.
“It was raining fire,” Allen said, pointing to burned paper and other materials that drifted into his yard, and showing how the heat from fire melted part of a side door to his house. “I am 51 years old and I have never seen anything like this.”
Edward Hatch said Martha Hatch worked at the Vineland Developmental Center for about two decades.
Martha Hatch eventually started taking in developmentally challenged youths, doing all she could to help them with their disabilities, he said. That practice went on for about 10 years, ending when Martha Hatch became too old to continue the work, he said.
“She was a good lady,” Edward Hatch said.
Edward Hatch said he learned of the fire while he was on his way home from Atlantic City.
He said his grandparents’ home was fully engulfed by the time he arrived on the scene. He said a dash to get to the house and help his grandmother was stopped by authorities, who told him it was too dangerous to get close to the burning building.
“I could do nothing,” Edward Hatch said.
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