Cause of Townhouse Blaze Still Under Investigation

Residents of the destroyed home on Featherbed Court in Lawrence Township were able to escape to safety after they were alerted to the blaze late Wednesday evening by the sound of a smoke detector going off.

While the precise cause of the blaze that gutted a Featherbed Court townhouse remains under investigation, authorities are sure that the fire started at the rear of the lowest level of the three-story home, according to Lawrence Township Fire Marshal Dale Robbins.

Located in that den area were the home’s laundry facilities, main electrical panel and a fireplace. The clothes dryer was in use when the fire broke out, but the fireplace was not, Robbins said.

Because of the intensity of the fire and the fact that part of the second floor collapsed not long after firefighters entered the house with hoses to battle the flames, investigators suspect the blaze had been burning for a while and had gotten a head start before firefighters were first alerted.

The townhouse at 41 Featherbed Court in the Sturwood Hamlet development off Denow Road is owned by Arthur and Evette Katlin.

The blaze began late Wednesday evening (Sept. 5) sometime after Arthur Katlin switched a load of laundry from the washer into the dryer and went upstairs, Robbins said.

He said the Katlins aren’t sure how much time passed – they estimated 20 to 30 minutes – before they heard the sound of a battery-operated smoke detector going off downstairs.

Going down to investigate the alarm, Arthur Katlin encountered smoke and then found fire in the first-floor den area, Robbins said, noting that Arthur Katlin told investigators that the most intense flames appeared to be concentrated around the flexible exhaust duct from the clothes dryer.

Robbins said Arthur Katlin immediately roused his wife and the couple’s son, who just started his freshman year at Lawrence High School. The couple’s daughter was not home, having just moved into a dorm room at Rider University to begin her freshman year there.

Arthur Katlin and a neighbor – who ran over to help after seeing smoke and hearing the commotion of the Katlin family fleeing the burning house – tried to fight the flames using portable fire extinguishers but their efforts were unsuccessful, according to Robbins.

At some point, he said, the Katlins moved their vehicle out of the driveway and away from the burning house. 

Also at some point, the motorized door to the attached garage opened, allowing additional oxygen into the burning home. Investigators are not certain if an electrical problem created by the fire caused the door to open or if someone opened it, Robbins said. He said the garage door was closed – it remains unclear how – prior to the arrival of firefighters.

A 911 call from the Katlins reporting the fire was received just before midnight Wednesday and Lawrence Township’s three volunteer fire companies were dispatched at 11:59 p.m. Police officers were on the scene by 12:02 a.m. and the first firefighter, Lawrenceville Fire Co. Chief Gary Wasko, by 12:04 a.m. The first fire engine reached the scene by 12:07 a.m., dispatch records show.

Lawrence Road Fire Co. Chief Shaun Dlabik and Lawrenceville Fire Co. Assistant Chief Dave Burns were preparing to the enter the burning townhouse when they were knocked backward off the front porch by a sudden burst of smoke and fire that erupted out the front storm door simultaneously as the sliding glass doors at the rear of the home shattered from the heat and a blowtorch of flames shot out.

The two were not hurt. Minutes later, additional firefighters began advancing hoselines into the house, trying to fight their way through flames to get down the stairs leading to the rear den area when the most-intense concentration of fire was.    

But the heat was so intense, firefighters said, that the lead hose team was not able to get very far down the stairs. They were still trying to move forward when, just before 12:20 a.m. according to the dispatch log, the beams supporting the second-floor kitchen burned away and the stove and other kitchen appliances crashed down to the exact area where the firefighters would have been had it not been so hot.

At that point, with conditions inside the home rapidly deteriorating, Wasko ordered all firefighters to evacuate the interior of the house and instead battle the flames from the exterior using multiple hoselines from the ground and from ladders.

The blaze was not declared under control until 1:50 a.m.

The Katlins’ home was destroyed. Minor damage was sustained to the attached townhouse, but the other six homes in the row of eight were not damaged.

The Katlins and their son were treated for minor smoke inhalation at Capital Health System’s hospital in Hopewell Township, while one firefighter who suffered minor burns while battling the blaze was treated at the scene.

Assisting Lawrence Township firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel at the fire scene were additional firefighters, EMS and support crews from Ewing, Hopewell Borough, Princeton, Trenton and East Windsor.  

The fire on Featherbed Court is the second major fire to occur in Lawrence Township in recent weeks.

And just as in the , where a smoke detector helped two people safely evacuate the burning home in time, a smoke detector was responsible for helping the Katlin family safely get out.

“Smoke detectors save lives,” Robbins said.

He said the investigation into the cause of the Featherbed Court blaze is continuing and involves his office, Lawrence Township police and the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. With regard to the Fountayne Lane incident, he said damage in that blaze was so significant that its cause remains undetermined.


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