Dolores E. Young was resting in her bedroom when a loud thump startled her. Young, 85, lives by herself with four active cats, in a house she’s had for 33 years. Thinking that one of her pets had knocked something over, she climbed out of bed to assess the damage.

As she walked along the upstairs hallway, though, Young could hear the buzzer from her old fire-alarm system, mounted to the front of the house. Puzzled, she went downstairs and walked outside. She’d had a new alarm installed in February, and the old one was supposed to have been disabled. But there it was, buzzing obnoxiously and flashing its bright red light. The new one made no sound.

After standing in the yard, confused, for a few moments, Young walked back inside. At least one of the alarms, she realized, was doing its job: Something was burning on the second floor. “There was so much smoke I couldn’t even see,” she remembers.

Unable to get back upstairs through the smoke-filled stairway, she grabbed a phone in the dining room and called 911. Then she waited outside, worrying about leaving her excitable cats inside, for firefighters to arrive.

Members of Engine Company No. 17 quickly put out the fire—”They were a lovely crew,” Young says—and gave her the go-ahead to re-enter the house. The cats had apparently weathered the disturbance downstairs and were unharmed but shaken. “I had to calm them down,” she says.

After talking with firefighters and investigators, she now believes the loud thump she heard was an electrical blaze igniting in the bedroom where her son, who passed away in January, used to sleep. A fire is traumatizing in itself, she says, but it was all the more difficult that it started in her son’s room. “I was just getting over the funeral,” she says.

Documents relating to her son sit among heaps of papers that litter most of the rooms in Young’s house. On a Friday afternoon, a neighbor has come over to help her sort through the piles of letters, newspapers, and magazines—which the insurance company suggested she do to make way for a cleaning crew. “They told me I should learn to love my house again,” Young says.

As Young stacks the papers, a private fire investigator, working on behalf of her insurance company, affixes a tag to a charred lamp and snaps some pictures of it. The lamp was in her son’s room, plugged into the outlet where the blaze seems to have begun. “Do you need a bag for that?” Young asks. The investigator declines the offer and slides the lamp into a bag of his own.

“While it was a pretty lamp,” Young says, “it was an old lamp.” CP