House fire death mystery caller hunted

By Ted Jeory and Roddy AshworthAN investigation has been launched into the cause of a house fire in which a woman died shortly after a mystery man called the ambulance service to report the smell of burning before hanging up.

By Ted Jeory and Roddy Ashworth

AN investigation has been launched into the cause of a house fire in which a woman died shortly after a mystery man called the ambulance service to report the smell of burning before hanging up.

Essex Ambulance Service received the mystery call at 6.30pm on New Year's Day when a man said he could smell burning at a terraced house in Queens Road, Wivenhoe.

Control room staff tried to call him back, but their efforts were diverted to an answering service. Ambulances, firefighters from Wivenhoe and Colchester and police were sent to the scene, a row of houses on a narrow street.

Fire crews smashed their way into the house and found an elderly woman, Bridget Sarsfield, lying in the front room, surrounded by flames and smoke.

Retained Wivenhoe firefighter Geoff Waller said: "I kicked down the door to the house and we found her on the floor in the front room.

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"I don't know how long she had been there. We got her outside and police and paramedics tried desperately to revive her on the pavement, but I don't think it was any good."

Mrs Sarsfield was taken to Colchester General Hospital, but she was pronounced dead on arrival.

An Essex Police spokeswoman said although the fire was not being treated as suspicious, detectives were being "careful" until they had contacted the man who made the emergency call.

Essex Fire Service specialists were also scouring the house yesterday for clues as to how the blaze started.

Mrs Sarsfield, who was aged in her 70s, was a much-liked regular at the Greyhound pub in Wivenhoe and also used to work at Colchester Arts Centre.

Wivenhoe poet Martin Newell, who lives in the same street, said: "She was a lovely, intelligent woman and you'd often see her sitting in her front room.

"I think if it had happened on any other day than New Year's Day, people would have noticed something wrong as it's such a neighbourly area."

Another neighbour, Nick Thompson, added: "Bridget was a very cultured, well-spoken lady. I think she used to be an art valuer for Sotheby's in London and had family there and in Brighton and Canada.

"She was partially disabled and needed a walking frame to get around. I used to go round to hers quite often to help her out.

"On Saturday I came back from watching Wivenhoe Town play football and went past her house. Normally, she'd be sitting in the front room, but she wasn't there this time.

"I went home and was reading upstairs and the next thing I see is all these flashing lights outside. I went to have a look, but was told by police to stay inside. When they put her in the ambulance I knew that was it."

Wivenhoe taxi driver, Ken Metcalf, said: "I had great respect for her. She was a fascinating woman, who'd led a fascinating life.

"Her father was a top barrister and I think she spent a lot of time growing up in India and she didn't suffer fools gladly.

"Unfortunately, she'd become more and more housebound and was scared to go out in case of falling down – she must have been terrified, the poor girl, when the fire started."

A spokesman for Essex Ambulance Service said it had received a call at 6.31pm from a man who said he could smell burning at an address in Queens Road, Wivenhoe.

"No further information was received from the caller, who then terminated the call. Further attempts to contact the caller were only led to the call being diverted to an answering service," he added.

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