Mistaken fire death ID shakes 2 families
Survivor confused with the victim
For nearly a week, the family of Ann Goyette thought she was the lucky one, the woman who survived a Dec. 22 fire in a Gloucester home sparked by fireworks and a dried-out Christmas tree that took the life of another woman.
That's what Goyette's relatives had been told by authorities after the fire. That's how doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital identified their patient in hospital records. And that's what Goyette's relatives believed as they visited the sedated, unconscious woman in her hospital room, her appearance obscured by a full-face oxygen mask and a breathing tube to help her damaged lungs function.
But on Sunday, the mask was removed and Goyette's relatives discovered to their horror that it wasn't Goyette in the hospital bed. The living, breathing, recovering patient was Susan Anderson, 38, of Gloucester, the other woman pulled from the burning house by firefighters during the early-morning fire. When her breathing tube was removed and hospital officials asked her name, the patient replied, "Susan Anderson."
The Goyette family, having lost a relative they had thought was alive, are facing another blow: Anderson's relatives have already cremated what they believed were her remains. Last week, the state medical examiner's office conducted an autopsy and released the body believed to be Anderson's to her family, having failed to discover the mistaken identities, even though the women were of different heights and were not burned beyond recognition.
During a brief interview and in a statement released yesterday, Goyette's brother said the family has no idea how the identities of the two women were confused. They are also holding out hope, pending official confirmation directly to them, that Goyette's remains were not cremated as Anderson's relatives have told authorities.
"At this time, the whereabouts of Ann Arnold Goyette is unknown," Scott Arnold said by phone. "Where is she?"
Anderson's family had been planning a funeral and had prepared an obituary to run in yesterday's Gloucester Times. "I'm just as numb as when I received the news that she died, but happily numbed this time," Dorothy Ramsey Stoffa, Anderson's stepmother, told the newspaper.
Gloucester Police Chief Michael M. McLeod confirmed yesterday that Goyette, 45, of Gloucester, was 5 feet, 2 inches tall. He said Anderson, the mother of two daughters, is 5 feet, 8 inches tall.
"My heart goes out to both families," said McLeod, whose department is investigating the cause of the fire with the Essex district attorney's office. "Like anything else, you are not supposed to assume anything."
Authorities said that four people were in the house at 163 Essex Ave. when the fire started before 5 a.m.: the two women, homeowner Russell Currier, 57, and Clayton Enslow, 32, of Gloucester. McLeod said the group had been drinking for many hours and began lighting "jumping jacks" fireworks, which came in contact with a Christmas tree that had not been watered and ignited the blaze. McLeod said the investigation into the case of mistaken identity so far has found that Enslow, who was treated and released after the fire, may have been the initial source of the mistake.
Enslow "made the initial identification" of the women, McLeod said. "I guess that passed the litmus test for the majority of people. We're going to look into that."
He stressed that the investigation is not complete.
McLeod also said both women were covered with soot when brought to Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester by rescue personnel. One woman, now identified as Goyette, died at the hospital from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. The second, now identified as Anderson, was transferred to MGH. An Addison Gilbert spokesman declined to talk about the case or the identification procedures used.
A spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety, which oversees the medical examiner's office, referred questions on the Gloucester case to Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett's office, which is investigating possible criminal charges in the fire. A Blodgett spokesman declined to comment on the case, citing the investigation.
Federal officials are investigating alleged misuse of grant money by the state medical examiner's office, which is also the target of a separate inquiry into how the wrong set of eyes was sent for examination by an outside medical specialist as the office investigated the sudden death of an infant.
Anderson's brother, Drew Stofa, said he and his brother, Michael, who both live in Texas, learned from their stepmother last Tuesday that Anderson had been killed in the fire. On Sunday, while they were watching a football game together, Stofa said, they received another call from their stepmother telling them that their sibling was alive.
Drew Stofa said the second call was a "freaky thing."
"It was kind of like, actually a shock, in a way at first," he said. "But then afterwards it was like one of the best presents you could get."
An MGH spokeswoman said yesterday that Anderson, who is now listed in records under her correct name, has improved and is listed in good condition.
John Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.