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Official: Smoke killed woman

NORCROSS -- An autopsy confirmed that a Norcross woman killed in an apartment fire Saturday died from inhaling smoke and soot, while the apartment complex was cited for a sinkhole that complicated rescue efforts, officials said Monday.

The victim has been identified as 44-year-old Heather Bennett, according to Ted Bailey, Chief Forensic Investigator with the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office. Bennett shared the apartment with her husband, who was elsewhere on Saturday.

Exactly what caused the 5:09 p.m. fire at the Barrington Hills Apartments in the 3400 block of Chelsea Park Lane remains under investigation. Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said the fire originated in the kitchen, while Bennett was found in the home's master bedroom.

"There appears to be no foul play concerning the cause of the fire (but) the investigation is still ongoing," Rutledge said.

The apartment was equipped with a smoke alarm, though it's not clear if the device was working, he said.

A neighbor called 911 after seeing fire in Bennett's second-floor apartment, where firefighters contained the blaze and rendered it under control about 6:23 p.m. Attempts by fire crews to resuscitate Bennett failed, and she was transported to an area hospital where she died soon after arrival, officials said.

The blaze caused extensive damage to the interior of Bennett's apartment. No other injuries were reported.

A sinkhole in the main driveway of the complex made accessing the fire difficult. Residents told fire officials the hole had been there as long as a month, and Rutledge said it forced fire crews to redirect fire equipment and seek an alternate route to the affected building.

"Whether or not any of that played a factor in the woman's death has not been identified," he said. "It did hamper our progress getting to the building."

Gwinnett County Fire Marshal Greg Schaffer met with apartment management Monday and issued the owners a citation for violating an ordinance related to accessibility for firefighting equipment and personnel.

Rutledge said the matter is scheduled to go before Gwinnett's Recorders Court on Thursday. It wasn't clear Monday how steep the fine will be.

"Obviously, it's something that we're concerned with," he said.