The Niskayuna community is mourning the death of a 14-year-old girl Friday morning in a fire at her home.
Fire officials do not yet know the cause of the fire at 2241 Niskayuna Drive, which claimed the life of Van Antwerp Middle School student Grace Kline.
Firefighters received a call from a neighbor about 8:20 a.m. reporting that smoke was coming from the house, according to Niskayuna Fire Chief Dale Lingenfelter.
When they arrived, they found heavy smoke throughout the residence and Kline unconscious in a first-floor bedroom. They pulled her from the home and took her to Ellis Hospital, where she was pronounced dead.
Nobody else was home at the time. Lingenfelter said the girl lived with her father, who was at work. He returned home soon after emergency crews arrived.
The fire started on the first floor of the wood-framed structure and was knocked down within minutes of firefighters’ arrival. The Cape Cod-style home sustained significant damage but is salvageable, according to Lingenfelter.
The house is owned by Mark Sollohub, son of the former Niskayuna police chief, but former tenants Lara Turney and husband Frank Coon said it has been rented out for several years.
Exactly where the fire started and what caused it is still under investigation. Lingenfelter said fire officials heard one smoke detector going off when they began fighting the blaze.
Assisting in the probe is the Niskayuna Police Department, Schenectady County Fire Coordinator’s office, New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney also was at the scene. The Schenectady Fire Department and Mohawk Ambulance Service helped, as well.
“We feel for the family involved, and it’s also tough on the responders,” Lingenfelter said.
Lingenfelter said bringing in multiple agencies is typical in fatal fire investigations. The department typically contacts county fire officials on large fires.
“Because it was a fatality, we wanted the state involved, as well, so we can have a lot of eyes on the situation,” he said.
The state has a dog that can determine whether accelerants were used and gather other information from the scene, according to Lingenfelter.
By evening, Niskayuna fire officials had completed their initial investigation at the scene. Now, Lingenfelter said, the matter is being turned over to law enforcement officials for follow-up interviews.
The house was turned back over to the resident by late afternoon and crews were at the scene Friday evening assisting with recovery efforts.
The fact that the victim was a young person makes it especially difficult, he added.
“There’s been a lot of tragedies in the country in recent months where young people have been involved. I think it’s more difficult to deal with for most of us because most of us have children and can relate to it,” he said.
Niskayuna town Councilwoman Denise Murphy McGraw said she was distraught over the fire. She knew Kline because she worked on a project this spring to plant a tree garden at the town pool. The project kicked off on Earth Day in April with a tree planting at Town Hall, and the girl helped plant two pear trees along the facility’s driveway.
“She has a very big personality, and she was very helpful during the event,” she said. “I called kids up to come to stand with me, and she was one of the first people to talk, and not all the kids wanted to.”
The Van Antwerp PTO and Best Buddies, an organization that pairs special needs students with mentors, participated in the event. McGraw said she believed Kline had some form of autism.
The school district activated its crisis management team and is providing grief counseling for services. Superintendent Susan Kay Salvaggio said in a statement that the district is saddened by the tragic loss and extends its thoughts and deepest sympathies with Kline’s family and friends.
“Those who knew Grace best at Van Antwerp said she was a warm light and a friendly face in the hall and in class. She will be remembered as an inquisitive young women, who liked jewelry and music — and showing off a recently-acquired ‘pixie’ haircut,” Salvaggio said.