, Derry, New Hampshire

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April 14, 2011

Mother, daughter die in raging fire

LONDONDERRY — A popular political activist and her daughter were killed in a two-alarm blaze that destroyed their Hemlock Street home early Wednesday morning.

While fire officials did not identify the two victims of the fatal fire, friends were mourning Frances Gehling, 63, and her adult daughter, Rebecca, Wednesday.

"Fran was very devoted to her family. She was very close with all of her children," friend Lisa Whittemore said. "I would say that was definitely the center of her life."

Fire Chief Kevin MacCaffrie said his firefighters made a "valiant effort" to get the two women out of the burning home when they arrived at around 4:30 a.m. Wednesday. But the home already was engulfed in heavy flames.

"We made an initial attempt to hold the stairway and give them a possible escape route," he said. "Shortly thereafter, it became untenable for our firefighters to maintain their position, so we moved to a defensive position."

Someone inside the house called 911 at 4:21 a.m., MacCaffrie said, and firefighters were on scene within eight minutes. When they arrived, four people in the house had escaped — but they told firefighters two other people were trapped.

Three generations of the Gehling family lived at the home: Fran and her husband John, their daughter Rebecca, son Joshua, and Joshua's wife and 3-year-old daughter, Whittemore said.

"They're a tremendous family," Whittemore said. "There's so much support for them."

Plenty of support will be coming from the Londonderry Democrats, a group to which Fran Gehling was dedicated, Whittemore said.

I think most people knew Fran because of her activism," Whittemore said. "She believed that a person's political beliefs should be translated into direct action."

Gehling recently attended a rally in Concord to oppose plans in the state House of Representatives to slash the state budget. Just hours before the fire, Whittemore drove Gehling home from a meeting with state Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Derry.

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