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November 21, 2013

Richfield Springs teacher dies in fire

By Denise Richardson The Daily Star
Cooperstown Crier

---- — Monday was a tough day at Richfield Springs Central School as students and staff faced the loss of a beloved teacher, the school superintendent said.

Mary E. Weingates, 59, died in a fire at her Richfield Springs home Saturday. She taught science to middle-grade students at the school, where she had worked since 1998.

The fire is considered accidental, an Otsego County fire investigation official said Monday, but the cause and manner of death remain under investigation.

Dan Myers, Richfield Springs Central School superintendent, said talking and remembrances about Mary Weingates will continue in the days ahead as students and staff work through the “horrible event” of her death and the loss to the school and local community.

Several teachers will speak during a gathering to celebrate Weingates’ life to be held in the Richfield Springs High School gymnasium at 1 p.m. Saturday, Myers said.

On Monday, counselors were at the school, along with five or six substitute teachers who relieved staff as needed, Myers said. During the weekend, the school staff met in crisis team sessions and contacted members of the school community personally before any emails about Weingates were sent, he said.

Weingates’ house was behind the school, Myers said, and on Saturday, students and staff who were watching crews fight the fire and the cleanup at the scene had to be ushered away so that the body could be removed.

On Monday, shades in school windows facing her charred house were closed, he said.

Weingates had been living alone in the house and was the sole occupant at the time of the fire, state police and fire officials said, and her pets were outside.

State Office of Fire Prevention and Control investigators are looking at a back porch as a possible site of fire origin, Kevin Ritton, coordinator of the Otsego County Office of Emergency Services, said Monday. The porch was used to store some appliances such as a refrigerator, washer and dryer, he said.

The fire was reported to Otsego County 911 at about 7 a.m. Saturday, and more than 30 firefighters, led by the Richfield Springs Volunteer Fire Department, responded to the blaze at 40 Walnut St. in the village.

Weingates body was found on the second floor with assistance from a state police K-9 unit, Ritton said.

“It’s a tragic incident,” Ritton said. Without making a specific reference to Saturday’s blaze, he said, any residential fire is an opportunity to raise awareness about the life-saving role of working smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors.

Troopers said an autopsy is being conducted at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady under the direction of Otsego County coroner Michael Fox Jr.

Myers said Weingates was a fixture in the community who was supportive of many charity efforts. She also had a quirky side, he said, and at one time expressed that she wanted everyone at her funeral to wear pajamas and eat popcorn and M&M’S candies.

On Sunday, when the school was open to provide counseling and support services, art materials were available for students to express themselves, Myers said, and one pupil drew a beautiful green M&M’S candy.

Weingates recently had planned a party with her science students to celebrate their achievement collecting the most pennies toward acquiring a new American flag for the school.

The students asked about the party Monday, and Myers reassured them it will go ahead as planned next week. Refreshments will include popcorn and M&Ms, the superintendent said, and students will have a special time to share thoughts about their teacher.