Inside a small red house at the bottom of long gravel path, a mother spent her last moments the same way she spent most of her days: at her son’s side.
Doris “Elaine” Hughes and her son, 32-year-old Sean Hughes, died inside their home about 4 a.m. Friday after flames tore through the house they shared for more than 15 years.
Sean Hughes was physically disabled. He relied on a wheelchair to get around.
When the 911 call came, Nevada County Fire Chief Jim Turner said, the mother told dispatchers that her son was trapped, that he couldn’t get out.
Nevada County sheriff’s deputies were the first to arrive on scene, but the intense heat and plumes of smoke kept them from entering the home. They walked around the property, an overgrown parcel of land in a thicket of tall trees off Highway 49, checking for survivors.
No one was outside.
Firefighters knew that could mean only one thing: The mother and her son were still in there.
Flames shot through the rear of the roof as rescue crews charged into the home.
It was a small space, cluttered and hard to navigate, Turner said. Firefighters pushed past piles of personal belongings to a room where they found the mother and her son.
“Our very first priority is life,” Turner said. “We went straight into rescue mode.”
But it was too late.
Elaine and Sean Hughes had died in the fire.
Later that day, arson investigators sifted through smoldering debris looking for signs of foul play. They found none.
It was not immediately clear where the fire began, but preliminary reports indicate the blaze was likely electrical in nature, Turner said.
Neighbors John and Chris LeBrescu said they were awakened early Friday by the sound of their dog barking. When they ran outside, they were met with flashing lights and the smell of smoke. As they moved closer, they saw smoke billowing out of windows and firefighters breaking in the roof of the house in the 17000 block of Country Circle.
They didn’t know the mother and son very well, the couple said.
Elaine Hughes, 61, was quiet. She kept mostly to herself.
But, standing on their front porch Sunday, the LeBrescus said they wished they’d been better acquainted with their neighbors.
“If we’d known each other better, if she had my phone number, she could have called me,” John LeBrescu said. “I would have been over there in seconds. I could have helped her pull (her son) out.”
Down the road, outside the Hughes home, a blue van with a disabled person placard sits untouched. A fold-up wheelchair coated in fallen pine needles and leaves rests under a tree.
The windows of the home are blown out.
“You keep asking yourself what could we have done?” Chris LeBrescu said.
The parents of Elaine Hughes declined to comment Sunday.
Firefighters said they found evidence of several animals on the property, including a Rottweiler that was taken to an animal rescue group and a cat that is being held at a local animal shelter.
No animals were killed in the blaze.