STATESVILLE, N.C. -- Investigators say the combination of cigarette smoking, an oxygen tank and a portable heater apparently caused a house fire which killed a 76-year-old Statesville woman.
Drivers on nearby I-40 noticed smoke and called 911 around 5 a.m. Monday.
The fire started in the woman's bedroom and is accidental, officials said.
Relatives who live next to the home on Buck Lane saw the fire, but there was nothing they could do.
The sound of fire trucks woke Tammy Gregory early Monday morning.
She figured it must have been a wreck on I-40, a few hundred yards from her home.
Then someone knocked on her door.
"We looked out the back, off the deck, and there we saw the fire," Gregory said.
It wasn't just a neighbor's house, but the home of her 76-year-old aunt-by-marriage, Sara "Sissy" Stamper.
Gregory figured with all the fire trucks there, firefighters must have saved Stamper; her husband went outside for a closer look.
"I just knew in my heart [when] my husband walked out, that they already had her in an ambulance and she was alive. I never dreamed that they hadn't gotten to her," Gregory said.
Investigators say the house was three-quarters involved by the time they arrived. They saw a car in the driveway, figured someone was inside and rushed in to fight the fire and look for victims.
They eventually found Stamper laying on her bedroom floor, covered in debris from a ceiling collapse, which is why it took a while to find her.
"She was a smoker, and she hadn't been feeling good lately. She was on oxygen, so we ended up thinking maybe she had a portable heater in her bedroom. So those are two biggies we're trying to do now," said Iredell County Fire Marshal Garland Cloer.
Relatives checked on Stamper around 9 Sunday night.
By the time the sun came up, a loved one was gone.
"It's like it's not real; it still doesn't seem real that she is gone," Gregory said.
Investigators say the house had working smoke detectors and relatives just checked them a few weeks ago.
The SBI is also investigating the deadly fire, citing standard procedure for a deadly fire.