DEVASTATED neighbours of grandmother Janice ‘Jan’ Garrett say her death in a suspicious housefire at Raymond Terrace has left them grappling with one question: why?
“She was a beautiful person, a genuine person with a heart of gold who had no bad words for anyone, ever,” said Peter Kafer, who moved with his wife Helen next to Ms Garrett 17 years ago.
“She would help anyone.
“She had a very close family and loved her kids and her grand kids – her daughter is absolutely shattered and gutted.
“It’s disgraceful what has happened. Why? Why? It just does not make sense.”
Police are treating the blackened shell of Ms Garrett’s house, which sits in the middle of quiet and leafy Rosemount Drive, as a crime scene.
Police were stationed at the property on Sunday combing through the wreckage.
Neighbour of 34 years Norma Mills said she and several other neighbours were “in shock”.
“Jan was a very nice person – she did not deserve to go this way. I just can’t understand.”
Emergency services were called to the property about 12.30am on Saturday after reports of an explosion and fire.
Firefighters found the body of Ms Garrett, 76, who had lived at the home for more than 30 years, inside.
Port Stephens-Hunter Police District’s Chief Inspector Glenn Blain said the “very fierce and ferocious fire” was being treated as suspicious.
About 50 minutes later, a Nissan X-Trail travelling north on the Pacific Highway collided about five kilometres north of Buladelah with a B-double truck travelling south. The crash occurred in the southbound lanes.
The male Nissan driver, 69, was taken by ambulance with non-life-threatening injuries to John Hunter Hospital, where he remains under police guard.
Port Stephens-Hunter Police District’s Commander, Acting Superintendent Alan Jansen, said the man was assisting police with inquiries.
“There were some initial witness reports that brought our attention to [the possibility] these incidents may have been linked.”
Mr Kafer said Ms Garrett had emphysema and usually slept in a recliner in her lounge room, next to oxygen tanks.
Several neighbours said Ms Garrett’s health meant they had not seen her outside as often in recent years.
Mr Kafer said he was watching television in the early hours of Saturday when he heard a car in Ms Garrett’s driveway with the engine running.
He looked out the window and saw flames and called for his wife to call Triple Zero.
“Then I heard kaboom – it was the biggest boom I’ve ever heard,” he said.
“The house shook, it was unbelievable.
“I ran out and yelled ‘Stay where you are, you bastard, what have you done’.
“He reversed out and I went yelling and screaming after him down the street.
“I came back and tried to rip the security screens off the windows and door and then got the hose out.
“There was a whole series of small explosions.
“Nothing like this ever happens here. You occasionally hear about a break and enter but that’s about all.”
Neighbour Michael Brock said he heard what sounded like a car hitting a tree.
“It was a voomp,” he said. “I came out and a car was backing out of the driveway.
“There was nothing you could do – the place was an inferno.
“I told the couple next door to Jan we had to get them out.
“I could hear the hissing of gas bottles and there was glass all over the place.
“It was horrific.
“This is an isolated incident.
“The big question that has to be answered is why?”
Neighbour Patricia Rippon said she heard three bangs and thought it was a truck rolling down an embankment.
“I never dreamt anything this ghastly would have happened,” she said.
“It really shook me.”
Ms Rippon said Ms Garrett and her late gardener husband David were already living in the street when she and her late husband moved in 38 years ago.
She said the Garretts raised their children there and Ms Garrett later bred and showed cats.
“She kept to herself a lot but we would say hi, good morning and how are you.
“She was a lovely lady and did not deserve what happened to her – it’s devastating.”
Ms Mills said she heard a loud bang and saw a glow outside, then heard another two bangs.
“The flames blowing from the front to the back were enormous.
“I’ve never encountered anything like it in my nearly 78 years.”
Another neighbour said he was “feeling so much for the family”.
“My heart goes out to them,” he said.
“I do think ‘why?’ but I don’t have any answers.
“It’s just total sadness and total devastation.”
The investigation includes detectives, the Homicide Squad, specialist arson police, crime scene fire investigators and a Fire and Rescue NSW investigator.