Article by: PAUL WALSH
Updated: July 9, 2013
A St. Paul man who survived a harrowing collision of military helicopters decades ago that took the lives of 22 of his comrades was unable to escape a firetrap of his own making Tuesday.
The body of 68-year-old Charles E. Nightingale was found not far from a door to his house, the Vietnam-era veteran apparently having been overcome by smoke before he could make his way out of the structure. Fire officials said the home was so choked with possessions that they had to cut a new entry to find a way in.
St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard described the house as “filled floor to ceiling” with Nightingale’s belongings. “The clutter was not only a combustible for ignition, but it spread the fire faster,” Zaccard said. “[The man] got as far as the door and then collapsed.”
Neighbors described Nightingale as someone who kept mostly to himself. He had an elaborate rock garden that he often worked on at night, neighbor Kenneth Rein said.
No one knew the extent of the situation inside his house or the trauma he experienced as a young Marine that may have played into his hoarding later in life.
In June 1967, Nightingale was one of five enlisted men critically hurt in the collision of helicopters that killed 22 during a training exercise near the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
He suffered “at least 20 different bones broken. Femurs came right out through his legs, and so did his arms. He spent 13 months in traction, both legs with pins and casts on his arms.”
Trained as a first responder, Nightingale had been due to be shipped off to Vietnam with the Marines to serve on the front lines, providing everything “from aspirin to suturing” to the troops on the ground, LaFountaine said.
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