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An excavator clears away rubble from the destroyed home, while extensive damage is visible to the duplex at the corner of 54th Street and Landis Avenue.

By Donald Wittkowski

Preliminary autopsy results for an elderly woman who was trapped in a fire that destroyed her duplex and badly damaged two adjacent homes in Sea Isle City found that she died of smoke inhalation, authorities said in a press release Wednesday.

Marie Zielinki, 89, was unaccounted for before her body was discovered in the charred rubble of her duplex at 29 54th Street a day after the Nov. 29 fire.

An autopsy performed on Dec. 1 “tentatively listed” the cause of death as smoke inhalation, pending the findings of a toxicology report, according to a press release by the Sea Isle Police Department.

Elizabeth Coleman, 56, and Roy Lombardo, 60, who shared the other side of the duplex where Zielinski lived, were taken to a local hospital for treatment of their injuries. Lombardo was released, but Coleman was transferred to Cooper Medical Center for treatment, authorities said.

The press release said investigators were able to determine where the fire started, but did not elaborate. Authorities are still trying to pinpoint what ignited the blaze.

“Investigators from the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office, Cape May County Fire Marshal’s Office, the New Jersey Fire Marshal’s Office and the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency have established an area of origin for the fire, and investigators are still actively working on identifying the ignition source. The investigation remains active and ongoing,” the release said.

The duplex on the ocean side of the destroyed home was also badly damaged and it has not yet been announced whether it can be saved.

Sea Isle Police Chief Tom McQuillen said in an interview Wednesday he could not provide additional details at this time other than to say that investigators were reviewing eyewitness accounts of the fire.

“It’s still active and ongoing,” he said of the investigation. “The source of ignition is still being determined.”

The fire broke out around 11:30 a.m. and spread to two other duplexes on either side of Zielinski’s home on 54th Street near Landis Avenue. Both duplexes, which were unoccupied during the fire, sustained extensive damage.

The remains of Zielinki’s duplex were demolished. Insurance adjusters will have to determine whether the other two duplexes can be saved, McQuillen said.

McQuillen told reporters the day after the fire that there were no signs of anything suspicious and it appeared it was nothing other than “a terrible tragedy.”

Marie Zielinski, 89, who died in the fire on 54th Street, is shown with her 10-year-old granddaughter, Lucia Corso. (Photo courtesy of Corso family)

Zielinki was remembered in her obituary as a “beautiful person both inside and out (who) made a lasting impression on everyone she met.”

Born in Philadelphia in 1929, she graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls and had attended Pierce Business School. She had worked as an office supervisor for Bell Telephone in Philadelphia.

In Sea Isle, she was a member of the Catholic Daughters of America, AARP and the Garden Club. She was an avid reader who also enjoyed playing the piano, listening to the symphony, Tai chi and exercising.

One of her favorite things to do was playing with her granddaughter and spending time with her family, her obituary said.

She is survived by her daughter, Nina Rosu, and her husband Mincea, a son, Joseph Corso, and his girlfriend Elizabeth Coleman and another son, Christopher Corso, and his wife Susan. She is also survived by grandchildren Caitlin Corso, Lucia and Christopher Corso and Christian and Rada Rosu.

Friends may call Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Godfrey Funeral Home, 644 South Shore Road, Palermo.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be offered Friday 11 a.m. at St. Joseph’s R.C. Church, 44th Street and Landis Avenue, Sea Isle City, where friends may call from 9 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. Burial will be private in Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon, Pa.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made either to Shriners Hospital for Children, 3551 North Broad Street, Philadelphia, Pa., 19146 or South Jersey Field of Dreams, 1000 Bay Avenue, West Atlantic City, N.J., 08234.