Fire death ruled suicide

May 22, 2004|By LAURA ERNDE


A North Avenue woman whose fire death was ruled a suicide may have gotten the idea from two other self-immolations in Washington County in November, Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said.

"Suicides can come in clusters," Smith said. "Unfortunately, the more publicity there is, the more people are likely to think about it."

On Friday, the Hagerstown Fire Department officially ruled the death of Janice Ellen Putnam, 53, a suicide.

"Nissa," as she was known to her family and friends, suffered second- and third-degree burns over 85 percent of her body, Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker said.


An autopsy showed she also had multiple cuts, inflicted in the minutes before the May 14 fire in the attic of her home at 16 E. North Ave., Hawbaker said.

Putnam died of her injuries about 15 hours later at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

She was the third Washington County woman to kill herself by fire since November, and the second such death on North Avenue.

Hawbaker and Smith said they aren't sure if Putnam knew Brenda L. Hitt, 47, who started a fire in her first-floor apartment across the street at 39 E. North Ave. on Nov. 30.

Hitt died nine days later at Washington (D.C.) Hospital Center.

The same day as Hitt's fire, Cathy "C.L." Widmyer, 51, of 47 E. Salisbury St. in Williamsport, died of burns suffered nearly three weeks earlier in the parking lot of Byron Memorial Park in Williamsport.

Smith said he and other officials have racked their brains to find ways to prevent more suicides.

"I don't know what the answer is," he said.

It's difficult to prevent someone from taking his or her own life, even when family members are aware that their loved one is depressed, he said.

In Putnam's case, fire investigators determined that she was burned while she set fires in two separate locations in the attic of her home.

She then went downstairs to the second-floor bathroom, where firefighters found her after the fire was reported shortly before 6 a.m.

She was taken to Washington County Hospital Trauma Center and then flown to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. She died shortly before 9 p.m. on May 14.

Putnam was the owner of the graphic arts and advertising business "Nissallaneous" in her home.

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