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Elderly woman dies after her pajamas catch fire while lighting cigarette

In 1965, Sonja and Samuel Skemp of Seminole were guests of honor at a ball at the Palace of Versailles.

Photo courtesy of Samuel Skemp

In 1965, Sonja and Samuel Skemp of Seminole were guests of honor at a ball at the Palace of Versailles.

SEMINOLE — More than 60 years ago, Samuel Skemp kept seeing a pretty brunet with olive eyes around the German town where he was stationed with the U.S. Army.

He first saw her at a downtown garden, at a movie theater and, finally, at a club. He asked her for a dance — and her number.

"She gave it to me and we've been together ever since — except today," Skemp, 86, said Thursday night with tears in his eyes. "She's not here."

On Wednesday night, Sonja Skemp, 84, died after she set her pajamas on fire while lighting a cigarette in her bedroom.

Samuel Skemp pulled her to the shower to put out the flames, but she died in his arms.

• • •

Samuel and Sonja Skemp liked to go out to dinner two or three times a week. On Wednesday night, they picked Applebee's.

After dinner, the couple returned to 7008 Green Briar Drive, the home they shared since 1982. Like always, they watched some TV — Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.

Afterward, Sonja Skemp left to get ready for bed. She took off her watch. She turned down her covers. She got into her pajamas. She had smoked Parliaments since she was in her 20s, and lit one before bedtime.

Samuel Skemp was on the opposite side of the couple's large home when he heard his wife scream shortly after 11 p.m.

He has a bad knee, walks with a limp and uses a cane. He ran as fast as he could.

"It took about a minute," he said. "She was in flames."

Skemp grabbed his wife's arm and tried to pull her into the shower. They didn't make it.

"All of a sudden she stiffened up," he said. "She collapsed on the toilet, her mouth wide open — and dead. She was dead. It was that quick."

Samuel Skemp said he used water from the shower to put out the rest of the flames. Then he called 911.

Fire crews arrived and pronounced Sonja Skemp dead. Her husband was not injured.

Samuel and Sonja Skemp were two months away from their 62nd wedding anniversary.

• • •

Sonja Skemp is the third woman from Seminole to die in a fire started by a cigarette in the past week.

On Feb. 2, a fire killed 97-year-old Alice Haker and her 78-year-old disabled daughter, Marlene Schaffran. Investigators said that fire was started by a cigarette in a bedroom in their unit at Twin Oaks condominiums, 11200 102nd Ave. N.

The Skemps' home is only a few miles from there.

On Thursday, long after the firefighters and investigators had left, Samuel Skemp avoided his wife's room. Several spots in the carpet remained charred with burned clothing. The smell of smoke lingered.

Samuel Skemp said his wife loved to cook and read. She played golf, often beating him.

The walls in the couple's home are covered with trophies Sonja Skemp won for golf. She scored five holes-in-one in her lifetime, her husband said.

The two traveled together, visiting many places around the world. One night, in 1965, they were the guests of honor at a ball at the Palace of Versailles in France. Skemp has a photo of them on the palace steps. It hangs outside his bedroom.

The couple has one son, Samuel, and two grandsons.

There was no secret to their longevity, Samuel Skemp said.

"It was all her fault," he said. "She was so wonderful. She was just a wonderful wife … To have her suddenly go … it's just awful. I really miss her. It really hurts."

Elderly woman dies after her pajamas catch fire while lighting cigarette 02/09/12 [Last modified: Friday, February 10, 2012 9:06am]
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