A 72-year-old man died following a fast-moving fire – sparked by a cigarette and fueled by medical oxygen – that ripped through his Provincial Towers apartment in downtown Wilkes-Barre early Friday morning, fire officials said.
Charles Houtz, who friends said was an off-and-on smoker and occasionally used a home oxygen system due to breathing difficulties, died several hours after crews pulled him from his engulfed 12th-floor residence, the county coroner’s office said.
“The fact there was medical oxygen flowing at the time made the fire spread at an incredibly fast rate,” Wilkes-Barre Fire Chief Jacob Lisman said.
Houtz was admitted to Mercy Hospital, Wilkes-Barre, at 2 a.m. and was pronounced dead around 5:30 a.m., Luzerne County Chief Deputy Coroner William Lisman said.
An autopsy ruled Houtz died from “shock” due to burns of the body, William Lisman said.
“What a terrible way to go,” said Barbara Imbriglia, who lived in the apartment next to Houtz. “I can’t believe this happened next door. He was a very pleasant man.”
Hard of hearing, Imbriglia said she was unaware of the blaze, even as deafening fire alarms roared and neighbors pounded on her door. By chance, she awoke from sleep to use the bathroom and smelled smoke, which quickly began to infiltrate her place.
“You know, I’m darn lucky,” she said.
Imbriglia was among nearly 100 residents – many elderly – evacuated from the 34 S. Main St. high-rise when the fire alarms sounded at 1:13 a.m.
Though the fire – which emanated a strange blue glow from the oxygen – was contained to Houtz’s apartment and extinguished within 40 minutes, most residents waited for nearly two hours before they were allowed back inside the building.
There are no rules prohibiting tenants from smoking in their apartments, the complex’s manager Heidi Keener said.
“Should he have been using oxygen while smoking? No,” Keener said. “But, I can’t tell them not to smoke. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell Charlie he couldn’t smoke. God rest his soul. It’s just a terrible tragedy.”
Houtz, who turned 72 earlier in the week, planned to wake up Friday and visit his daughter in Philadelphia for the weekend to celebrate his birthday, said Bob Zwiebel,
Houtz’s friend at St. Conrad’s Society social club on South Washington Street, Wilkes-Barre.
Houtz, a board member for the club where he bartended three nights a week, worked the 7 p.m. to midnight shift on Thursday. He won $125 in a club-sponsored random drawing that night and was preparing for a “great weekend,” which included taking in a Neil Diamond concert with his daughter, Zwiebel said.
Brian Leonard, another one of Houtz’s friends at St. Conrad’s, said club members were in disbelief Friday.
“I’m surprised he was smoking. He said he stopped months ago,” Leonard said.
Leonard said Houtz was a retired Navy officer and wasn’t bartending due to a dire need for money in his elder years.
“He was a real personable guy – a gentleman. He was just passing time,” Leonard said. “He was here because he was friends with a lot of people.”