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Woman dies in early morning apartment fire

A 39-year-old woman was overcome by smoke and died early Wednesday morning in a fierce fire that consumed her Oak Harbor apartment.

Jana Ellen Lee moved to Oak Harbor from Atlanta two years ago after suffering from a rare autoimmune disorder that left her partially paralyzed and in great pain. She lived with her mother and stepfather, Joanne and Fred McDaniel, before moving to the small apartment on Whidbey Avenue, next to the Roller Barn.

Battalion Chief Ray Merrill with the Oak Harbor Fire Department said the cause of the apartment fire appears to be accidental, though the investigation is not complete. He said it could have started from a cigarette.

Lee died from asphyxia due to smoke inhalation, he said.

A neighbor reported the fire at about 6:45 a.m. A man from next door broke the door down in an attempt to save Lee, but the fire was too fierce and smoke completely filled the apartment.

Daniel Boles, a next-door neighbor, said he was awakened when someone pounded on his door that morning. He said 10-foot flames were shooting out of the windows and doors.

Merrill said firefighters were able to get the fire under control quickly, but it was too late to save Lee. The 16 firefighters — with two engines, a ladder truck and support vehicles — prevented the fire from spreading to adjacent apartments. Lee’s unit was a complete loss.

Merrill said he doesn’t know if there was a working fire alarm in Lee’s apartment. He said fire investigators didn’t find one, but it could have melted away.

The blaze spotlights the importance of modern regulations for fire systems in buildings.

“If the building was built today,” he said, “both a fire alarm system and a sprinkler system would have been required — and we probably wouldn’t have had a fatality.”

It’s the city’s first fire fatality in two or three years, according to Fire Chief Mark Soptich.

Joanna McDaniel, Lee’s mother, said her daughter was working hard to recover from her medical problems. She said her daughter was working in a dentist’s office in Atlanta when she was required to get a flu shot in November of 2003. The vaccine caused an autoimmune response that attacked the nerves in her back, leaving her right leg paralyzed for some time.

After a long struggle, and many visits to doctors’ offices, Lee was able to walk again.

“She took many falls,” her mother said. “Many falls, I can’t tell you how many. She was proud. She didn’t like to walk with a cane.”

Throughout the ordeal, McDaniel said her daughter kept a sense of humor.

“She was a true southern gal,” she said. “When she said, ‘hi,’ somehow it worked out to be three syllables.”

McDaniel said Lee received some great medical care in the community, especially from chiropractor Dawn Keith.

“Dawn was her guardian angel,” she said. “Lee was in a tremendous amount of pain and Dawn was always there for her.”

Lee never had children, but she loved kids, as well as animals. She had a special love for her mother’s rat terrier. She wasn’t able to get out a lot, but she loved to visit with her grandmother, Frankie Timbrook, who lives in an Oak Harbor adult family home.

“She had some good friends here,” McDaniel said. “She loved the area. She loved to look at the water.”

A memorial service for Jana will be held at 2 p.m., Monday, Feb. 13, at 2 p.m. at Burley Funeral Chapel. A full obituary is on page A5.

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or 675-6611.

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