MAYS LANDING - Anna Cristinzio died Monday morning in a fire that destroyed the house the 79-year-old grew up in.
Cristinzio was home alone when the fire started at 7:45 a.m. Monday, and was probably upstairs sleeping, god-daughter Sandy Yanniello said.
Firefighters arrived to smoke billowing from the flaming structure on the 200 block of Route 50. They found Cristinzio on the ground in the living room. An investigator from the Atlantic County Medical Examiner's Office pronounced her dead at the scene, police said.
Investigators have not identified the cause of the fire but said it started - likely accidentally - in the living room where investigators found Cristinzio, Hamilton Township Police Lt. Ed Barr said.
Neighbor Brian Murphy saw sparks coming from electrical wires near the house. Within a minute, flames engulfed the structure.
"By the time the firefighters got here, it was 10 minutes after the fire started, maybe less," Murphy said. "The fire spread so quickly, there was nothing they could have done differently."
The balloon-style architecture of Cristinzio's 92-year-old house and others built during the early 20th century are marked by open wall cavities that allow flames to spread unchecked, Mays Landing Fire Chief Dave Connelly said.
Members of the Mays Landing, Laureldale, Cologne, East Vineland and Richland volunteer fire companies contained the blaze within an hour, police said.
Two firefighters required medical treatment for heat exhaustion. One - Anthony Paone III - required hospitalization, but he was stabilized and released by late afternoon Monday, Cologne fire company Chief Dave Elkner said.
Cristinzio's was the second house fire in Hamilton Township in two days. A vacant house on Reega Avenue in Mays Landing was destroyed by a fire Sunday morning.
Yannello, 69, of Mays Landing, said she spoke regularly to Cristinzio, her cousin and childhood babysitter whose habitual churchgoing inspired Yanniello to convert to Catholicism at age 13.
"She was very, very intelligent. She was a good Christian and had a very good heart," Yanniello said Monday evening. "She loved her family - if anyone got sick, she was the first one at the door to help or bring food."
She also provided a willing ear, strong shoulder and optimistic outlook during Yanniello's divorce and similarly tumultuous times for others, Yanniello said.
"She'd always boost your morale," Yanniello said. "She'd say, ‘Don't worry, do what's right today and tomorrow will take care of itself.'"
Cristinzio never married or had children, and was a caretaker to her developmentally disabled older sister Antoinette, who died in 1998, Yanello said.
"She was just a homebody, an old-fashioned Italian who liked to be at home and do things like cook. Family meant a lot back then, and she was inseparable from her mother and father," Yanniello said.
Cristinzio also ran the offices of the Atlantic County Department of Agriculture that preceded the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County, then worked for the Cape-Atlantic Soil Conservation District. After her retirement, her former colleagues continued to take her to lunch every week, her cousin Lou Yanniello said.
Cristinzio stopped driving two years ago and had hired a nurse to cook, clean and otherwise assist her. Still, she strove to remain independent when possible, insisting on walking by herself to church at St. Vincent de Paul Church three doors down from her house, Sandy Yanniello said.
"I'm still in shock. I can't believe it happened," Yanniello said of Cristinzio's death. "I don't understand how (the fire) started, and I'd like to know."
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