Mullica Hill man dies as fire guts his house

Posted: March 21, 2014

HARRISON TWP. Tracey Wilson was asleep when her husband woke her. He thought he heard sirens.

"It was late," she said. "We had no idea anything was burning until the first truck arrived. My husband used to be a firefighter, so he knew the sound."

Across the street, Ronald Steward's home was burning down.

The Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office is investigating the cause of the fire that claimed Steward's life Wednesday morning.

The Gloucester County Communications Center responded to a 911 call from inside the single-family home on East Avenue in the Mullica Hill section shortly before 4:30 a.m. When township police and the fire company arrived, they found the two-story house with yellow siding ablaze. The building would burn until 8:37 a.m.

There was no word on how the fire began, though witnesses on the scene speculated that it started in the basement.

Steward's wife, Diane, and their adult son were also in the home during the fire, though both escaped unharmed, along with the family dog.

Steward, 63, was pronounced dead at the scene. An autopsy conducted by the county medical examiner determined that he had died from smoke and soot inhalation.

His body was found on the second floor of the home. Investigators believe he chose to stay inside and fight the encroaching flames as his family fled to safety.

An "origin and cause" investigation is being conducted by the township's fire department and police, in tandem with the Gloucester County Fire Marshal's Office, the county Sheriff's Department's Accellerant Detection K9 Team, and the county prosecutor's office, according to a statement from authorities.

The American Red Cross' Disaster Action Team was dispatched around 6 a.m., providing the two survivors with food, clean clothing, and emotional support, said Laura Steinmetz, spokesperson for the South Jersey chapter of the Red Cross. The Red Cross has provided the family with hotel accommodations until a longer term residence is found.

By 2 p.m., construction workers had boarded over the home's shattered windows and gathered a nest of charred siding on the front lawn. One soot-covered screen door hung open, revealing a pair of folding chairs coated in ash.

Wilson, who recently moved into the neighborhood, said Steward had been nothing but kind to her.

"It's just so sad," she said, her shoulders slumping. "They were a really kind family. No one knows why a thing like this happened."

Neighbor Steve Toner, 65, also said that Steward was a kind man who mostly kept to himself.

"He was the religious type," Toner said. "I'm not, but he was still a really kind man."

Toner said he would miss seeing the family's dog meandering up his sidewalk until the family returns.

"Their son usually walks their dog right up and down this street," he said, pointing to the road past his driveway.

Contact Jerry Iannelli

at 856-779-3882.

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