Baton Rouge Fire investigators spent several hours Tuesday morning combing through debris from a house fire before ultimately removing two bodies — a couple married for about 40 years — from what remained of the sprawling brick home on 78th Avenue. 

Fire Department spokesman Curt Monte said crews responded to the 2300 block of 78th Avenue just after 4 a.m. Tuesday when neighbors called 911. He said the roof was beginning to collapse within five minutes of their arrival, indicating the fire had already caused significant damage.

Firefighters found one body before 9 a.m. but did not locate the other until about three hours later. Monte said the extensive damage to the house meant sorting through debris took longer than usual.

Family members had gathered on the scene Tuesday afternoon and identified the two victims as Ivory and Maryella Brown, both in their late 60s. The family said the couple had lived in their large home on 78th Avenue — a tidy subdivision not far from Southern University — for many years.

Maryella Brown’s parents bought the property when she was young, family members said. She lived there through high school and then moved back later with her husband to care for her mother. The couple decided to stay after her mother died.

Monte said the Browns were the only people inside the house during the fire. The cause of the fire remains under investigation, though Monte said investigators see no reason to suspect any suspicious activity.

He said investigators found no signs of smoke detectors, but those could easily have been destroyed during the fire. "Of course we're heartbroken over the tragedy, but I hope this serves as an alarm for folks to test their smoke detectors, have an escape plan with your family," Monte said.

Valencia Parker, Ivory Brown’s sister, said she and other family members had driven to Baton Rouge from Port Allen after hearing the news Tuesday morning.

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“Right now I’m just trying to hold it together. It doesn’t seem real," said a shocked Parker. "You see this stuff happening to other families on the news but you don’t ever expect it could happen to yours.

“I can’t comprehend this even though I’m looking right at it,” she said, staring into the mangled remains of her brother’s house. The roof had collapsed over the west side of the building — the side where investigators recovered both bodies.

Monte said the fire likely started somewhere around the carport and spread into the house.

Parker said she was leaving the scene Tuesday afternoon and visiting the hospital because her sister, who has a heart condition, had gone into cardiac arrest after the trauma of losing their brother.

“I’m just very distraught for my family,” Parker said.

Kenneth Washington, a cousin and close friend of Maryella Brown, said he learned about the fire watching the news Tuesday morning and then came to the scene, where he watched from a distance while investigators uncovered his cousin’s body.

“It was a shock … just didn’t look good once they found one dead,” he said. “But there was a rumor (Maryella) was found alive, and that wasn’t true. … After this I’m going to go put it out of my mind for a while.”

According to their families, Ivory Brown had owned a bail bond business, which Maryella Brown helped run. She had also worked as a teacher and he had worked as a private investigator. They had been married for about 40 years.

Follow Lea Skene on Twitter, @lea_skene.