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Boyfriend: I didn't start fatal fire

Police, fire officials investigating whether blaze is arson

Posted: August 5, 2014 - 11:10pm
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George A. Swain, 59, gives an interview to the Empire in the entryway of the Dimond Courthouse in downtown Juneau Monday afternoon. Swain said he didn't start fire in the Lemon Creek Road trailer that killed his girlfriend, 56-year-old Doris Emanoff, on Friday night. Police and fire officials are investigating whether the fire was intentionally set.  Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
Emily Russo Miller / Juneau Empire
George A. Swain, 59, gives an interview to the Empire in the entryway of the Dimond Courthouse in downtown Juneau Monday afternoon. Swain said he didn't start fire in the Lemon Creek Road trailer that killed his girlfriend, 56-year-old Doris Emanoff, on Friday night. Police and fire officials are investigating whether the fire was intentionally set.

A man being investigated for potentially starting a trailer fire that killed his girlfriend, says the fire was set intentionally, but he wasn’t the one who did it.

In an interview with the Empire on Monday, George A. Swain deflected allegations against him and instead pointed the finger at his girlfriend, Doris Emanoff, whom authorities believe was barricaded in her bedroom when she burned alive inside her Lemon Creek Road trailer Friday night.

“Me? No,” Swain, 59, said when asked if he started the fire. “Doris started it.”

Swain, who has been interviewed by police but is not considered a suspect at this time, said Emanoff was drunk and upset when she locked herself in the bedroom.

“She was just hysterical, I’m telling you,” Swain said of Emanoff’s demeanor before the fire broke out. “At that moment, she was down” for various reasons.

He and Emanoff had been living together in the trailer for about the past 10 years. The Aug. 1 blaze is the first time someone has died in a fire in Juneau in more than two decades, local authorities say.

The police and fire departments are conducting a joint investigation to determine the fire’s cause and whether it was intentional. Capital City Fire Rescue Chief Richard Etheridge said officials have not ruled out any possibilities, including arson. An electrical cause hasn’t been ruled out, and neither has a smoldering cigarette or any other type of ignition source. Spontaneous combustion is even in play, the chief noted.

“It still could be anything that caused the fire,” Etheridge said Monday by phone.

CCFR has not been able to determine whether an accelerant was used. Etheridge said additional fuel is not easy to detect unless it’s something obvious, such as “copious amounts” of gasoline.

“They did collect samples just to rule that out,” Etheridge said, adding the samples are being sent to the state crime lab in Anchorage. “That takes a little bit of time to get it there and processed, so they won’t have a definitive on that for a week, if not a couple weeks.”

The Juneau Police Department is taking its cues from CCFR and waiting.

“We don’t know if it’s intentional or not,” JPD spokesman Lt. David Campbell said Monday. “We pretty much rely on the fire marshal to provide us with everything that’s fire-related.”

The fire raised questions for Emanoff’s neighbors, who described the 56-year-old grandmother as sweet and gentle. Police responded to a disturbance at the home 45 minutes before the fire started, and two people were able to escape while Emanoff was not. Swain was present at the trailer, as was Emanoff’s son, Charlie.

“Swain has been interviewed, but I can’t discuss the content of the interview,” Campbell said. “It is still too early to make any determination as to if he is a suspect.”

Police responded to the trailer before the fire for a report of a disturbance. Officers found Emanoff and Swain, both of whom were intoxicated, arguing in their front yard, according to police and eyewitness accounts.

Police told the two to stay separated and ensured the safety of Emanoff’s 11-year-old granddaughter, who was visiting from Sitka, before leaving. The granddaughter was asked to stay at the neighbor’s house, where Emanoff had sent her earlier in the day. Neighbors said that caused friction between the couple.

When the fire broke out, Swain was arrested for disorderly conduct for not obeying police orders to leave the burning house, a misdemeanor offense that landed him in court on Monday. Police had to physically drag him away from the house and arrested him for his own safety, Campbell said.

“Officers were saying it was filled with smoke and they could see flames,” he said. “There was heavy black smoke, molten fire particles falling from the roof, the flames were visible, so for his safety, they had to get him out of the area.”

At Swain’s court hearing Monday, he was appointed an attorney since he is unemployed, then he was released on his own recognizance on $250 bail.

Emanoff, Swain said in the courthouse entryway, was upset with herself for drinking because she had stopped consuming alcohol for the past several years. She felt worse because her granddaughter was present to witness it, which is why she sent the granddaughter to a neighbor’s home.

“That broke Doris’ heart,” he said.

Swain said Emanoff wanted to drink that day because she had chronic back pain. She tried to obtain a painkiller from a neighbor across the street, which he said led to an argument between Emanoff and the neighbor. He said that’s why police came to their home before the fire, not an argument between him and her.

After police left, Swain said Emanoff went into the bedroom and he heard her “throwing stuff around.” When he went to see what was wrong, she started pushing him and slammed the door in his face, he said.

He went out on the back porch to “cool off.” After about 10 minutes, he said he heard the fire alarm in their bedroom going off.

“I opened the door and the flames were going,” he said.

He said Emanoff had put items behind her door, which acted as a barricade, and he couldn’t get inside. He said he grabbed a quilt and draped it over himself but still couldn’t enter. He said he hollered at Emanoff’s son to grab the fire extinguisher from the kitchen, but the extinguisher didn’t work.

“It was no good,” he said of the device, adding, “I heard her say, ‘Oh George,’ and then it (the smoke and flames) hit me again, and she said my name but it was too late. I couldn’t do nothing because of the smoke and the flames.”

The police and fire departments received a 911 call at about 5:46 p.m., and the first two police officers arrived within a minute of each other about 5:51 p.m. When they arrived, Swain said he begged them to help him.

“I go, ‘Come in and help me get this, come in, give me a hand, we can do this,’ and that’s when they grabbed me,” Swain recalled. “I told them, ‘No, we need to get in there right now.’

“It was so intense and it happened so quick,” Swain continued. “She was in there burning up … and my life fell apart, right there.”

Firefighters arrived shortly after police (an exact time has not been provided by CCFR), and the fire was so hot that firefighters couldn’t go in initially, according to the fire chief.

“The whole back room was on fire,” Etheridge said, adding that firefighters had to force the bedroom door open the rest of the way because stuff was piled up behind it. “Finally, one of the bedroom windows had failed,” which helped cool the room.

By the time firefighters reached her — CCFR is still calculating and verifying its response times — Emanoff was unresponsive. She was pronounced dead at Bartlett Regional Hospital.

“Once we got her out of the building, we got her loaded in the back of the ambulance and on the way to the hospital,” Etheridge said. “They just started doing CPR right away and started doing their life support stuff because we didn’t know for certain if she was dead. They’re going to run it and do everything they can just in case there’s that slight chance that we may be able to save her.”

It would have been an awful way to go, since trailers are essentially enclosed boxes with metal siding.

“It’s just kind of like being inside your oven,” Etheridge said. “It doesn’t dissipate the heat. It radiates it back in. And with the insulation, it contains the heat into a little metal box, so it’s kind of like being inside a chimney when you’re inside of a trailer that’s on fire.”

The fire damage was confined to the back bedroom, leading CCFR to believe that was where the fire began. The rest of the house sustained heavy smoke and heat damage.

Etheridge said CCFR is still investigating whether the bedroom door, which had a deadbolt on it, was locked shut or if Emanoff was trapped inside because of the items placed inside the room, directly behind the door.

“There were contents of the bedroom behind the door blocking it,” Etheridge said. “We are still clarifying if it was locked at the time of the fire attack.”

Police seemed more confident that the door was locked.

“The door was bolt locked from the inside and barricaded,” Campbell said Monday.

Swain told the Empire he didn’t think the door was locked. He doesn’t know how the fire started, but he believes it was intentional due to all the emotions Emanoff was going through.

“She was broke up over that kid next door, and everything,” he said. “She was just hysterical, I’m telling you. At the moment, she was down. She lost her dad two years ago. She was down. Her back, and she just felt hopeless that (her granddaughter) was next door ... and she couldn’t get her to come home because she was intoxicated. And she lost it. She hadn’t drank in two to three years, and it hit her all at once.”

Emanoff leaves behind her son, Charlie, and her daughter, JeannieMae. Memorial service arrangements are pending. JeannieMae said she did not want to comment on her mother’s death at this time.

The last fatal fire in Juneau was in 1996, according to the police chief, who was a volunteer firefighter at the time. There were two that year, he said. One was at a home near Glacier Valley Elementary School and someone died from smoke inhalation. The other was in Douglas and was caused by smoking.

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