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Leonia crossing guard killed in fire ‘quiet, unsung heroine of the community’

Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter
Photo Credit: Damien Danis
Photo Credit: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

UPDATE: A 65-year-old crossing guard and her 34-year-old special needs daughter were killed in a ferocious overnight fire at their home, authorities confirmed tonight.

Harriette Townsend’s body was officially identified earlier this evening, Leonia Police Chief Thomas Rowe told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

A second body pulled from the house was believed to be her daughter, who suffered from epilepsy. Autopsy results were expected to identify her soon after, authorities said.

Townsend’s brother, Howard Coleman, got the 95-year-old family matriarch to safety after the fire broke out around 5:30 a.m., emergency workers told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .

POST-FIRE PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

He tried to get to his sister and niece but was beaten back by the flames, as were two Leonia police officers who were quickly on the scene. Both officers were later treated for smoke inhalation, Rowe said.

The cause of the five-alarm blaze appeared to be electrical, Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli told CLIFFVIEW PILOT Thursday afternoon.

“It’s a sad day for Leonia,” Rowe said.

Harriette Townsend ( photo above ) was “a typical, quiet, unsung heroine of the community,” the chief said. “She was very diligent, hard-working. She protected the kids every day for eight years.

PHOTO: Damien Danis

“Every day when I drove in to work, we would wave to one another. That’s how I started every day,” Rowe said. “I’m going to miss that.”

Howard Coleman, 58, had gotten his mother — also named Harriette — out of the house, but neither he nor police who were there in an instant could get to the others.

Joining Leonia firefighters were crews from Fort Lee, Ridgefield Park, Englewood, Englewood Cliffs and Palisades Park.

The instability of the structure at first made it impossible for teams to search for the second-floor residents. Firefighters were battling the blaze with hoses and a ladder, in fact, when the roof collapsed and a side wall pitched against a nearby tree.

Emergency workers and investigators had to until a crane could be brought in to access the structure from above.

The bodies were then removed and the Bergen County Sheriff’s Bureau of Criminal Identification collected evidence.

Built in 1900, the house was one of oldest in the area, at the corner of Maple and Springs streets, about two blocks from Fort Lee Road, on a large piece of property that extends to the nearby railroad tracks where officials are considering running a light rail.

It was believed built by the father of  Harriette’s late husband, George Coleman, who died in 1997 at the age of 78.

POST-FIRE PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

STORY / PHOTOS: Mary K. Miraglia, CLIFFVIEW PILOT Courthouse Reporter

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