A St. Paul man who survived a harrowing collision of military helicopters decades ago that took the lives of 22 of his comrades was unable to escape a firetrap of his own making Tuesday.

The body of 68-year-old Charles E. Nightingale was found not far from a door to his house, the Vietnam-era veteran apparently having been overcome by smoke before he could make his way out of the structure. Fire officials said the home was so choked with possessions that they had to cut a new entry to find a way in.

St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard described the house as “filled floor to ceiling” with Nightingale’s belongings. “The clutter was not only a combustible for ignition, but it spread the fire faster,” Zaccard said. “[The man] got as far as the door and then collapsed.”

Neighbors described Nightingale as someone who kept mostly to himself. He had an elaborate rock garden that he often worked on at night, neighbor Kenneth Rein said.

No one knew the extent of the situation inside his house or the trauma he experienced as a young serviceman that may have played into his hoarding later in life.

20 broken bones

In June 1967, Nightingale was one of five enlisted men critically hurt in the collision of helicopters that killed 22 during a training exercise near the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.

A Pentagon dispatch a few days after the crash listed Nightingale as a hospital corpsman third class.

Norman LaFountaine was on the larger of the helicopters with “Doc” Nightingale and the dozens of others at the time of the collision.

“Things came unglued, and he was gone” from his seat, pitched to the ground below, LaFountaine recalled Tuesday.

LaFountaine, of Pensacola, Fla., said that Nightingale was among the most heavily injured of the survivors.

He suffered “at least 20 different bones broken. Femurs came right out through his legs, and so did his arms. He spent 13 months in traction, both legs with pins and casts on his arms.”

Trained as a first responder, Nightingale had been due to be shipped off to Vietnam with the Marines to serve on the front lines, providing everything “from aspirin to suturing” to the troops on the ground, LaFountaine said.

“We met in 1966, and we stayed in touch all through the years,” LaFountaine said, choking back tears. “He was an artist. He used to take a napkin and do city skylines in ink pen. His favorite was the Chicago skyline at night.”

Dangerous for firefighters

Firefighters were forced to fight the blaze in the pre-dawn hours Tuesday from outside the house because Nightingale’s possessions barred them from getting inside, the fire marshal said. Crews cut open a side door, where they found Nightingale’s body.

There was also concern that because of the massive amount of waterlogged possessions, the first floor could collapse into the basement.

The clutter may make it take longer for investigators to pinpoint a cause for the fire too, Zaccard said. Nightingale was a smoker, “so we will be looking at that as a possible cause,” he said.

The St. Paul Fire Department averages one such “clutter” fire a year, Zaccard estimated.

Tuesday morning, the front garden that Nightingale spent so much time cultivating was littered with soggy mementos that he had collected.

Ruined books and soaked cereal boxes left a trail down the home’s front steps. Piles of books and other knickknacks could be seen through the home’s broken side windows.

LaFountaine said Nightingale was bartending part time and still “had a lot of physical issues” decades after the helicopter crash.

Nightingale’s “family was pretty much his mom and his dad,” LaFountaine said. He had girlfriends but “didn’t get too close to too many people,” LaFountaine said. “He loved old stuff, antiques.”

Brian Thorkildson said that Nightingale’s house is on his daily walking route and that he had noticed through the front-porch window a framed Marine Corps emblem accompanied by the words Semper Fi, the motto of the Marine Corps.

Next to it was a similarly framed Navy emblem.

“It would be great if he can be remembered for that and not just being a hoarder,” Thorkildson said.