MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – Usually, David Gordon talks to his parents every day. When he called Tuesday night, the line was busy.
At about that time, police got a 911 call from inside the couple’s home reporting a fire. Minutes later, police believe, former state auditor Jay Gordon, 77, and his wife, Joan, 72, succumbed to smoke inhalation from the fire, which ripped through their modest split-level home. “They were taken very quickly,” police Sgt. Richard Cleveland said Wednesday.
State police fire investigators inspected the back of the house Wednesday, looking for clues about the fire’s source. The couple died in the basement, which included an a TV room and an office. Their bodies were found around 4 a.m. in the office, which had no fire damage, Cleveland said.
“The entire stairwell was engulfed in flames,” Cleveland said. “There was just no way out.”
Fire crews were on the scene three minutes after the 10:02 p.m. call – believed to have come from Joan Gordon – but the house was fully engulfed, Cleveland said.
“There was no indication that they were conscious or alive,” said Cleveland, who grew up four doors away and knew the couple and their two sons. “They were salt-of-the-earth people,” he said.
Jay Gordon, an accountant, served as a Democratic auditor of accounts in the 1960s, during Gov. Phil Hoff’s administration. He was elected in 1964 and served two two-year terms. He also owned a business and taught accounting at Norwich University from 1990 until he retired in 2001.
“A lot of people were horribly shocked by the news we got today,” said Norwich spokesman Dave Santos.
Robert Rotondi, director of Norwich’s accounting program, said Gordon starting teaching full-time in his 60s.
“At a time when people should be ready to relax, he started teaching,” Rotundi said. After he retired, he said he regretted it because he enjoyed the contact with the students, according to Rotundi.
Neighbor Bill Sullivan, 56, said he saw the Gordons return home around 8:30 p.m. Tuesday.
When he went outside to get something out of his truck he said he saw a menorah in the Gordons’ window, on the first day of Hanukkah.
“I’d never seen that before. I was moved by it, because they’re very private people,” he said.
Paul Carnahan, the librarian at the Vermont Historical Society, said Jay Gordon grew up in Bellows Falls, in an immigrant family. “His family spoke Yiddish at home. A real pull-up by the boot straps” guy, Carnahan said.
“He was a great storyteller, and had great stories about the early days of Democratic politics in the state,” Carnahan said.
The Gordons’ other son, Harry, 41, who lives in Boston, had talked to his mother around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Cleveland said.
Harry Gordon was despondent, “to know that within minutes his mother was fighting for her life,” Cleveland said.