Crews that responded to a Thursday night house fire in Woods Cross, Utah, encountered heavy smoke as they worked the scene, South Davis Metro Fire Chief Jeff Bassett told the Deseret News.
"We're talking a hot, thick black smoke that was to the floor," Bassett told the newspaper. "Extremely difficult, zero visibility."
The cause of the blaze, authorities say, was electrical - faulty Christmas tree lights.
Firefighters were able to find the elderly couple who lived at the property, Melba, 74, and Gary Mecham, 77, officials said in a news release. But the incident was fatal. Although the Mechams were rushed to a hospital, they both died.
"It's terrible it's Christmastime," Carl Bonner, a neighbor, told the Salt Lake City Tribune, "but they went together. Maybe the Lord was right there with them. It puts a hole in your heart. We're going to miss them."
Responders were dispatched to the home at about 10:33 p.m. Thursday, according to the South Davis Metro Fire news release. Police at the scene reported that the Mechams were probably inside, and firefighters immediately launched a search when they arrived.
Both were pulled from the home, the release stated, and personnel began to perform CPR. The Mechams were sent to a hospital, where emergency room staff members "worked very hard to revive both homeowners," but the couple died.
"The detail of injury is pending, but all indications are due to smoke inhalation," South Davis Metro Fire said in the statement.
Investigators found a discharged fire extinguisher in the home's kitchen, according to the statement, and some of the extinguisher product was around the Christmas tree.
"It appears the occupants attempted to extinguish the fire and were overcome by smoke," the news release says.
Carl and Irene Bonner had been neighbors with the couple for more than four decades, the Tribune reported.
"We went through everything together," Irene Bonner told the newspaper, "raised our kids together, the highs and the lows. Everything."
She remembered Melba Mecham as someone who would always be over to help, "if you were sick or your kids were going through something." Irene Bonner told the Tribune that Gary was a quiet person, but remarked that he had "a wit about him."
"Melba was imaginative. She always did the cutest little neighbor gifts. I was just thinking yesterday, 'I wonder what Melba's going to do this year,' " another neighbor, Karen Gay Davis, told the Deseret News. "It's just unbelievable that this would happen."
The Deseret News wrote that Davis, who has known the Mecham family for years, broke down in tears when she recalled "the moment she realized her longtime friend was gravely injured."
"I'm sorry. This is hard," Davis told the newspaper. "When they brought Melba out last night and put her in the ambulance, they were doing CPR on her. I went to run up to [her], the policemen [said], 'Get back, get back.' "
Via the Associated Press:
Bassett said the couple had mentioned to others they had been having trouble with the lights, which came prewrapped to their artificial tree.
Smoke and chemicals from the burning artificial tree likely overwhelmed the couple, while Christmas presents and logs for their fireplace stacked near the tree added fuel to the fire, investigators said.
Between 2010 and 2014, fire departments in the United States responded to an average of 210 house fires a year that started with Christmas trees, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Those fires caused an average of six civilian deaths, and millions in property damage.
In January, a blaze at an Annapolis, Md., mansion claimed the lives of Don and Sandra Pyle, as well as four of their grandchildren. A 15-foot Christmas tree was the fuel for that devastating fire, with authorities ruling that an electrical outlet overheated and led to the deadly incident.