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Elderly woman died in fire caused by cigarette

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News 12 First at Five // Tuesday, March 1, 2011

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Arson investigators say a deadly Aiken house fire was started by a cigarette left on the bed. The fire killed an elderly woman, but her husband was able to make it out alive thanks to one neighbor's quick thinking.

Jeff Hesik says he was just trying to help out when he ran into a burning house, all for a couple he didn't really know that well.
As Hesik walks through his smoky neighborhood, he says he's still shaken up over the deadly fire in his neighbor's home. "I called 9-1-1 because I noticed that the house was on fire. A guy across the street yelled that there were people in there so I started banging on the door."

But when no one responded, Jeff said he had to do something. "I kicked the door in, went in the house and looked around. But it was really smoky. I had to come back out to breathe." Jeff wasn't even sure there was anyone inside, but other neighbors insisted Gene and Betty Haley were unaccounted for.

So Hesik followed his instincts, kicking in door after door around the house. "I went in one last time and saw this guy's hand. I grabbed it, I grabbed him and pulled him out of there. By that time the police and fire and everything was here and it was all smoky. I couldn't go back in or do nothing else after that."

Jeff pulled Gene Haley outside to safety, but firefighters say it was too late for Gene's wife, Betty. Sgt. Aaron Dowdy says, "After the fire was extinguished we found a deceased female in the bathroom of the home. She did not make it." He explains, the fire didn't destroy the structure of the house; the outside was not that badly damaged. "The fire definitely started on the left side of the home," Dowdy adds. "It was contained to the bathroom and bedroom area. So we know that the fire was for the most part contained to that part of the home."

Mr. Haley was not injured, but he and his family are still in shock over his wife's sudden death. Friends say Betty was in her eighties and known for being a cat lover. They say she didn't leave home very much in her older age.

Jeff shakes his head. "I was glad that I was able to find somebody. I felt good that at least someone's gonna get out of there." But as for him being labeled a good Samaritan... "I don't need a label. I just do what I gotta do. That's all."

There was also an oxygen machine inside the bedroom, Aiken County arson investigator Lt. Adams says the machine was damaged too extensively to tell if it was on at the time of the fire. They did not find evidence of any explosion. He says the inside of the house is in ruins, largely from smoke damage.