Johnson City house fire victims identified – women aged 77, 50 perished in Woodlyn Road blaze

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WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Authorities in Washington County, Tennessee have identified the two women killed in a Johnson City house fire Thursday.

Officials with the Washington County, Tennessee Sheriff’s Office said Helen Murray, 77, and Donna Schreiber, 50, were killed in the fire at a home on Woodlyn Road.

Both bodies have been sent to the William Jenkins Forensic Center at ETSU for an autopsy, according to a release Friday.

Fire officials on scene Thursday told News Channel 11 that there were excessive amounts of materials that prevented rescue crews from entering the home in time to rescue the women.

Photo: WJHL

Multiple cats and rabbits were rescued from the home after the fire, according to officials with the Washington County-Johnson City animal shelter.

As News Channel 11 was on scene Thursday evening a family dropped off a note at the gate leading up to the home where the fire happened.

The note read in part, “You both will be missed dearly by the Riddle family. Woodlyn road will never be the same without your smiling faces!”

“The investigation stands at this point with the forensic center we’re waiting on an autopsy to confirm what we think is the cause of death which in this case is smoke inhalation,” said an investigator with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, Clint Arnette.

Arnette told News Channel 11’s Kelly Grosfield the autopsies for both victims are currently underway and the investigation into the cause is on-going.

While final confirmation of the cause could take weeks, Arnette said they have a hunch as to what may have started the blaze based on their early findings.

“We have an early indication that the fire was electrical in nature. We’re working with the TBI to determine that as a final cause of the fire but preliminary it is an electrical fire,” he said.

Arnette said they’re working with TBI to make sure there is no foul play in this incident but said at this time, it is not suspected.

According to Arnette, Schreiber’s son made it out of the home safely and had been placed with other family members. Red Cross is assisting in the incident seeing as the home has been declared a total loss.

Neighbors told News Channel 11 the women had lived there for years. While they were said to be quiet and kept to themselves, for the most part, their neighbor, Joni Hartley said they will be missed in the neighborhood.

“It’s sad. It’s not going to be the same without them because they’ve been here for a long time. We’re used to seeing them go up and down the road picking up cans and we called them the ‘can women’ because everyone would always bring them cans. That’s what they did, picked up cans, saved cans,” said Hartley.

Hartley said the blaze was visible from her property and she couldn’t believe something like this happened in their neighborhood.

On top of a number of fire agencies responding to the scene, animal control also responded in regards to a number of animals saved from the home.

While an undisclosed amount of cats died in the fire, officials said 12 cats and three bunnies were saved with one bunny dying after reaching the Washington County/ Johnson City animal shelter.

“A couple of them appear to be relatively healthy and they were friendly. Most of them were in poor condition. They were skinny, very thirsty, very hungry, and will require a little bit of medical attention,” said Executive Director, Tammy Davis.

She said animal control will be back on the scene for the next few days rounding up the stray cats that escaped the fire.

Right now, they’re asking for donations to help provide the necessary care for these animals so they can be adopted out.

“Even though we’re a larger shelter, we still have limited availability of space so we only want to be a temporary place to house animals. Our goal is to get them in then get them adopted as quickly as possible,” she said.

Applications are currently being accepted and Davis said they will post photos of the animals rescued. Due to COVID, adoption appointments must be made in advance via email.

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