The Portland Press Herald

Sherwood Campbell was a large man who adored his small dogs. The kind-hearted 64-year-old, who had no children, doted on the long-haired miniatures.

So neighbors and family members were sad, but not surprised, that Campbell charged into the smoke-filled home he shares with his parents in a desperate effort to rescue his pets, shrugging off his brother-in-law, who tried to pull him to safety.

Firefighters found Campbell’s body Wednesday morning at the entrance to his second-floor bedroom, the body of his dog Whomper with him, relatives said.

“He just loved his dogs. They were his world,” said his sister, Cindy Holland. Besides Whomper, he also had Little Dog, a white Pomeranian, Holland said. A third dog, his parents’ black miniature pincher, Muppet, also died.

Investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s Office are still trying to determine what ignited the fire, which started in the kitchen area at the rear of the house.

Campbell’s parents, who are in their 80s, were at Maine Medical Center at the time of the fire. Campbell’s father, Sheldon, is in intensive care unit for a heart problem.

Mark Blanchette, Campbell’s brother-in-law, said he was in his home across the street when Campbell ran over Tuesday afternoon yelling that the house was on fire.

“He had soot all over him and on his face,” Blanchette said.

Gordon Stevens, who lives in a house just a few feet from where the Campbells’ house stood, had just gone into his bathroom when he saw thick black smoke rolling from the house.

“Sherwood came out of the house and ran down to Mark’s,” he said. He said he didn’t think the family had a phone.

Blanchette headed back across the street to the burning house and Campbell followed. As smoke billowed from the front door and windows, Campbell rushed into the house and up the stairs to the second floor.

“He shoved me out of the way and went after the dog,” Blanchette said. “I kept telling him the dog’s not worth it.”

Blanchette latched onto Campbell’s leg but he could not pull Campbell — who weighed between 300 and 400 pounds — from the house. Instead Campbell pulled him up the stairs.

“I held it as long as I could,” Blanchette said. “I had to let him go.”

Blanchette couldn’t breathe and he could hear Campbell wheezing. He let go, ran outside and inhaled deeply, holding his breath as he ran back up the stairs and grabbed him again, he said. Campbell made the top of the stairs and turned left, wrenching out of Blanchette’s grasp.

The dense smoke was about waist high on the first floor and on the second floor it was almost impossible to see, Blanchette said. He retreated, but could hear his brother-in-law call for help.

“He asked me to help him three times. The last time you couldn’t barely hear him. It was really faint. I couldn’t go back in,” he said.

Stevens said he, Blanchette and Blanchette’s daughter were at the house when firefighters arrived. Flames had burst out of the rear of the house by then.

When the first fire truck arrived, Blanchette, a former assistant fire chief until just recently, and Stevens, directed a spray of water at the back of the house until more firefighters arrived.

Fire Chief Shane Gallant said the station got the call at 4:45 p.m. and when they arrived the building was engulfed.

“There was fire coming out from the back of the house and the second floor of the house and smoke rolling everywhere,” said Chief Shane Gallant. “By the time we had the personnel to do anything interior, it was too dangerous.”

Firefighters from Canton and surrounding towns attacked the fire with water from the outside but made slow progress. They kept it from spreading to the neighboring houses, but the Campbell House at 9 School St. was destroyed.

The fire spread quickly, in part because of the large accumulation of possession’s Campbell’s mother Norma had gathered. Stevens said there were pathways between the belongings inside.

They raised chickens, geese and a cow behind their house. Blanchette said his in-laws were children of the Great Depression.

“The people in town could be mean. They called her a hoarder,” he said.

She had antiques among her other possessions, but all were lost in the fire that consumed the building, including enough cookbooks to open a museum, her daughter, Cindy Holland said.

Still, the family was just getting by. Sheldon and Norma Campbell couldn’t afford insurance on the house, Blanchette said.

Town crews used an excavator to turn over piles of debris as they sought to extinguish hot spots and prevent flare ups. Firefighters didn’t leave the scene until more than 12 hours after the initial call and even then gray smoke floated up from the pile.

The structure was demolished and the pile of debris was nearly two stories high.

Blanchette said his daughter spotted a suitcase in which Campbell kept some of his baseball card collection. He figured there was probably extensive water damage, but maybe some of the interior collectibles could be saved.

Campbell was a fan of the Boston Red Sox. He had worked for some 20 years in the nearby Bass shoe factory, but the arduous hand work took its toll on his health and his eyesight started to worsen, so he had to leave, Blanchette said.

He was disabled after being declared legally blind, but surgery had removed cataracts and improved his eyesight, his sister said.

“He had a heart of gold for anybody. He would go without,” said Blanchette, who was married to Campbell’s sister, who died four and a half years ago of leukemia.

Some family cats, which mainly lived in the barn behind the house, survived the blaze. The town’s animal control officer was notified and planned to come collect them, Stevens said.

Stevens said he understands Campbell’s devotion to his dogs.

“To him, they were like his kids and if it were me, there’s nothing that would keep me from going inside after my kids,” Stevens said.

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