Authorities recovered the body of a wheelchair-bound man Thursday morning inside a Central City home destroyed by fire.
The cause of the early morning blaze remained under investigation, but state investigators said it did not appear to be suspicious.
The fire broke out sometime before 2 a.m. at the man’s home in the 2300 block of South Prieur Street, a residence that had no electricity or gas. The victim, Robert L. Clay, 58, apparently had been using candles for lighting, authorities said.
“Our leanings at this point, based on what we’ve put together, certainly suggest the candles could have caused this fire,” said Brant Thompson, deputy chief of the state Fire Marshal’s Office. “Investigators determined the fire originated in the central area of the structure, but the official cause remains undetermined.”
Firefighters initially feared other people had been trapped inside the home, which was fully engulfed when the first crew arrived at 2:03 a.m. They searched through the rubble with a cadaver dog but found no other victims. Clay’s body was found inside a bedroom.
Neighbors reported seeing flames lapping 10 feet above the roof. In all, the New Orleans Fire Department deployed 25 vehicles and 73 employees to the scene, said Capt. Edwin Holmes, an agency spokesman. Firefighters had the blaze under control by 3:12 a.m.
Several neighbors said they suspected the fire had been set intentionally because Clay, at the time of his death, had been embroiled in a bitter legal dispute over property. But investigators found no evidence of arson.
“In interviews with family members, no one is suggesting that they believe there has been any type of intentional act,” Thompson said.
The fire devastated Clay’s wood-frame home and appeared to have damaged at least two adjacent properties. A window was still smoldering shortly before noon as neighbors and reporters surveyed the property.
Several extension cords were running between the property and neighboring structures, but investigators determined they were no longer providing electricity. There were no functioning smoke alarms in the house.
Friends described Clay as a giving man who frequently took in homeless people. He had been confined to a wheelchair after suffering a stroke.
“Before that he was the Neighborhood Watch guy and would walk up and down the street looking after folks,” said Kevin Darensbourg, who owns a rental property on South Prieur Street. “He kept an eye on my property for me.”
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