By Jillian Jorgensen
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.
"Those of us who knew her were chuckling that she had a chance to get her last 2 cents in," Whittemore said.
Gehling ran unsuccessfully for state representative last fall. She did hold a seat on the Londonderry Budget Committee several years ago. Rebecca Gehling, believed to be in her 20s, worked at a bank in Derry, Whittemore said.
"I knew Rebecca as a beautiful young woman," Whittemore said. "She loved her job and was looking forward to a great career, and just a life full of hope and promise."
The family members who escaped the house were taken to Parkland Medical Center to be treated for burns and smoke inhalation. They were in stable condition Wednesday, MacCaffrie said.
The colonial home, built in 1986 in a quiet, residential neighborhood, was gutted by the flames. Just one room and the garage remained standing.
The fire took about an hour to get under control, and was put out with assistance from Derry, Windham and Litchfield firefighters. There were 25 people on scene within about 20 minutes, MacCaffrie said.
"We did have an issue with water supply, due to the fact that the nearest hydrant is over 1,000 feet away," he said.
The hydrant is actually in Derry, MacCaffrie said. The amount of water trucks were carrying when they arrived on scene was not enough for such an aggressive fire, he said.
"A small department, short-staffed, with a small supply of water," MacCaffrie said.
The home was still smoldering hours after the fire. Small flames popped up periodically along the roof. The second floor collapsed during the fire, MacCaffrie said, making it difficult to find much inside.
"We just finished dousing the last of the hot spots, and the investigators can start unpeeling the layers of the building," MacCaffrie said late Wednesday morning.
State Fire Marshal Bill Degnan said investigators were just getting to work Wednesday morning to determine the cause of the fire, but he said there was no reason to believe it was suspicious.
"The investigative team will be working first to determine where the victims are located, and document them and remove them from the house," he said.
It was unclear if the home had working smoke detectors, Degnan said. Because of when it was built, it should have had them on each floor, by law. The house did not have residential fire sprinklers, something that can be key in saving lives during fires in rural locales without hydrants, Degnan said.
"Whether the fire was started inside the home or outside the home, residential sprinklers give the occupants time to escape," he said.
Linda Hotchkiss lives around the corner from the home. She described the Gehlings as her "backyard neighbors." She said the fire started in the back of the home, close to her property. She said she woke up her family as soon as she saw the flames.
"I don't know what woke me up," she said. "The sky was pretty orange."
Hotchkiss said she called 911, but fire trucks had already arrived. Fire officials soon told her and her family to evacuate their home. Her family has lived next door to the Gehlings for six years, she said.
"They're great, great people," Hotchkiss said.
The Londonderry Democrats are planning a memorial for Gehling and are in the process of setting up a trust fund for the family.
"Obviously, we're all very grieved about the situation," said Tammy Seikmann, president of the group.
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