Maureen "Reeny" Michalek fell ill with a cancerous stomach tumor about a year ago, and all she wanted was to be cared for in her 103-year-old home on St. Paul's West Side.

Her doting husband of nearly 48 years, Peter "Tin Man" Michalek, was more than happy to oblige.

The couple were home Tuesday when an early morning blaze tore through the two-story house in the 600 block of S. Smith Avenue. The house was fully engulfed by the time firefighters arrived about 4:20 a.m., casting a red haze in the sky and spewing smoky clouds visible blocks away.

"There was so much fire," said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard. "It was unsurvivable."

Hours after fighting the blaze, firefighters found Reeny, 66, who had dwindled to about 70 pounds in her illness, dead in a first-floor bedroom. Her husband, 70, was found dead in an upstairs bedroom.

"She was kind of trapped where she was," unable to get away from the fast-moving fire, said the couple's niece, Heather Clemen.

Peter was found on his bedroom floor, as if he got up and was overcome by smoke, Zaccard said.

A motorist reported the fire at 4:18 a.m. Two blocks away Belen Ortiz was awakened by her Chihuahua, Junior, who kept licking her face and barking at her open window. She woke up to the acrid smell of smoke wafting through her window. Outside, the sky glowed red.

"The whole neighborhood was filled with smoke, like it was a foggy day," Ortiz said.

Firefighters had to battle the blaze from outside as flames were "roaring out all the windows," Zaccard said. Part of the roof collapsed onto the second floor. Late into the morning firefighters continued to spray water on the roof as it smoldered. A small blaze erupted on the roof as late as 11 a.m.

A cause has not been determined, but Zaccard said it does not appear to be suspicious. Reeny and Peter both smoked, and authorities are looking into the possibility that careless smoking was the cause, the fire marshal said. The fire started in the rear of the home near where Reeny slept. The house was a total loss.

The couple's four children declined comment, deferring to Clemen. She said Reeny was trying to put on enough weight so she could safely undergo surgery for her tumor. Peter and their children cared for her.

"He loved her very much," Clemen said. "They were just kind of a fun-loving couple."

Clemen said they complemented each other well: Reeny was "saucy" and outgoing and Peter was calm.

Their deaths were especially hard because a fifth child, their eldest son, Tony, had died in January, she said. Clemen added that the house had newly installed smoke detectors.

Reeny worked in nursing homes before her retirement. Peter, who also went by Pete and his middle name, Lorin, was a retired sheet metal worker.

Longtime friend Bill Starr said friends often called him "Tin Man" because of his work. He loved to fish, play poker and collect antiques with his wife, Starr said.

"Everybody liked him," Starr said. "Reeny, to me, was the heart of the family."

The couple had lived in the home for about 40 years, and were set to celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary May 23.

Bill Hickok, a neighbor, runs estate sales in the area and said Peter was a regular customer with a strong negotiating streak and eclectic tastes.

"You never think this is going to happen in your neighborhood," Hickok said.

Fire fatalities in Minnesota rose sharply last year, according to preliminary state data, in what officials are calling an anomaly from the consistent declines seen since the 1980s.

There were 51 fire deaths in Minnesota in 2011, up 31 percent from the previous year, according to the Department of Public Safety's State Fire Marshal Division. The state's all-time low was 35 in 2009; the high was 134 in 1976.

State Fire Marshal Jerry Rosendahl noted that six fires last year accounted for 17 of the fatalities. Of the 51 deaths, three were ruled suicide; 16 involved alcohol or drugs, and 12 were caused by careless smoking or unattended candles.

Staff writer Dennis McGrath contributed to this report. Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 @ChaoStrib