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Man Dies in Claremont Fire

Veteran, 68, Remembered as Gruff But ‘With a Heart of Gold’

  • Lt. Stan Andrewski of the Claremont Police Department had stopped to check on the home of Louis Russel, of Claremont, N.H., on Aug. 4, 2014. Russel died in a house fire on Sunday night. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Lt. Stan Andrewski of the Claremont Police Department had stopped to check on the home of Louis Russel, of Claremont, N.H., on Aug. 4, 2014. Russel died in a house fire on Sunday night. (
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The home of Lewis Russell of Claremont, N.H. -- Russell died in an evening house fire on Aug. 3, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    The home of Lewis Russell of Claremont, N.H. -- Russell died in an evening house fire on Aug. 3, 2014. (
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lt. Stan Andrewski of the Claremont Police Department had stopped to check on the home of Louis Russel, of Claremont, N.H., on Aug. 4, 2014. Russel died in a house fire on Sunday night. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • The home of Lewis Russell of Claremont, N.H. -- Russell died in an evening house fire on Aug. 3, 2014. (<br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Claremont — A veteran of the Vietnam war who died in a fire at his home Sunday evening was remembered by family members as a man who appeared rough on the edges but had a big, generous heart on the inside.

Firefighters were called to the home of Louis Russel at 11 Warren St., just before 9:30 Sunday evening and upon arrival encountered heavy smoke. They entered through a window of the one-story home and found a man on the floor who was immediately transported to Valley Regional Hospital where he was pronounced dead, according to a news release from the State Fire Marshal’s office.

Though the victim has not been positively identified by authorities, pending an autopsy, family members confirmed it was Russel, 68, who lived alone. His dog also perished in the fire, which is believed to have been caused by smoking materials, state fire officials said.

“He was a good guy. Maybe rough on the outside but inside he was soft as a marshmallow,” said his brother, Ken Moran, who is 10 years older than Russel. “He was always good to the family. He helped his nephews over the years and a lot of them would stay at his home.”

Moran said his brother was exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange, and it caused him health problems throughout his life.

The house windows were boarded up Monday morning, and Russel’s SUV was parked out front. The rear window of the vehicle had several stickers paying homage to Vietnam veterans as well as prisoners of war and those missing in action.

“In Memory of the 58,215 Brothers and Sisters who never returned from the Vietnam War,” read one decal.

Claremont Fire Chief Rick Bergeron said unlike most fires, there were no visible flames when firefighters arrived, just thick smoke.

“It looked to us he was in his bed and fell asleep or dropped a cigarette,” Bergeron said. “Something then woke him up — it could have been the smoke — but when he did wake up the smoke conditions were untenable.

“There were no smoke detectors so he didn’t have an early warning.”

Fires involving upholstery or bedding tend to smolder and with the house closed up the oxygen was quickly depleted, the chief said, explaining why there were no flames but a lot of smoke.

He said they believe the mattress smoldered for maybe as long as 30 minutes before firefighters arrived.

“Visibility was essentially zero,” the chief said. “The situation deteriorated to the point it would not support human occupancy.”

Neighbor Cliffton Potwin said his wife noticed the smoke and he called 911.

“I banged on the door, but there was no answer,” Potwin said.

At the house Monday morning, Russel’s nephew, Bob Weymouth, had stopped by to put a lock on the front door. Weymouth said he has been married to Russel’s niece for 15 years.

“He had a rough exterior with a heart of gold. That just sums up the man,” said Weymouth. “He liked the outdoors, and he loved the New York Yankees.”

Potwin called Russel “a real pleasant guy.”

Russel’s sister, Eileen, who lives in Claremont, said her brother came home from Vietnam a different person.

“He was awesome before Vietnam, but I think the exposure to those chemicals did something,” Eileen said. “He kept to himself a lot, but he was a wonderful guy and a very nice man.”

The State Fire Marshal’s Office had not released a cause of death by Monday afternoon. The state medical examiner was conducting an autopsy.

Bergeron said Russel’s dog was found dead in the kitchen, which was diagonally across from the bedroom.

The fire marshal’s office said the preliminary cause was the “careless use and/or disposal of smoking material.”

Roughly 1,000 smokers and nonsmokers die in house fires each year caused by cigarettes and other smoking material, according to the U.S. Fire Administration.

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

Correction

Louis Russel, 68, died of smoke inhalation in a fire at his Claremont home Sunday evening. A story and photo captions in an earlier version of this story misspelled his name.