Smoldering book fire claims life of Princeton resident

3 March, 1992

Smoldering book fire claims life of Princeton resident

Leland Burr loved books so much that he crammed a basement storage room with them.

He also kept a wood burning stove there.

Investigators now say the Friday morning fire that killed Mr. Burr started in that room and smoldered for hours before filling his modest house at 524 Princeton-Kingston Road with gas and smoke.

Repeated exposure to heat from the stove dried the piles of books and papers to a point where they ignited sometime early Friday, investigators said.

”It was a slow, very low-intensity lire. It didn’t work out from the point of origin or escape from the room of origin,” said Princeton Township Fire Marshal Ted Cashell. “Basically it just smoldered for hours. It smoldered in that room for a very long time.”

Books stacked from floor to ceiling were no more than five or six feet from the stove, Mr. Cashell said. On the floor, investigators found “piles of papers and other combustibles” near the “hundreds of books,” he noted.

The books acted as both insulation and fuel for the fire. Mr. Cashell explained.

That gave the fire time to smolder and time to produce the gases that eventually killed Mr. Burr, a 47-year-old Princeton University graduate who made a living by managing a sizable portfolio of his own investments.

“That’s one of the worst things about this type of fire. It produces a lot of smoke and carbon monoxide and other gases,” Mr. Cashell said.

Police were called to the scene at 6:58 a.m., Lt. Mario Musso said.

By 7:30 a.m., crews from Princeton’s three fire companies had extinguished the fire, Lt. Musso said.

Police found Mr. Burr dead, lying face down on his kitchen Boor.

An autopsy Friday afternoon by Mercer County authorities showed the cause of death to be smoke inhalation, Lt. Musso said.

Friends said Mr. Burr, who lived alone in the house, had been in the Princeton area for more than 20 years.

“He was very sincere, unpretentious. He loved literature. He had a quick wit and a very sharp intellect,” said former Princeton Borough Administrator Mark Gordon, a close friend of Mr. Burr’s.

“It’s a great loss, a great personal loss,” Mr. Gordon said.

When not reading himself, Mr. Burr would often read to the children of friends, recalled Mr. Gordon.

“He enjoyed reading to children and playing with children,” Mr. Gordon said.

Originally from Boston, Mr. Burr earned a doctorate in Elizabethan literature from Princeton University.

“Elizabethan literature was one of the things he loved, but he was also reading several South American authors. He loved literature,” Mr. Gordon said.

Mr. Gordon said Mr. Burr was “a highly principled, very private man.

“Character was more important to him than the position or title was,” Mr. Gordon said.

“This really is a great loss for us.”

Funeral arrangements, which are under the direction of the Mather-Hodge Funeral Horne, 40 Vandeventer Ave., Princeton, had not been finalized as of late Monday.

Mark Gordon (left) talks to Princeton Township police after learning Friday morning of the death of his friend and neighbor, Leland Burr.

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