January 11, 1999 12:00 PM

New York City TV reporter Mary Garofalo had covered fires before, but this time she was a little too close to the story for comfort. As a curtain of smoke blackened the windows outside her 42nd-floor Manhattan apartment and crept under her door on Dec. 23, Garofalo couldn’t resist the urge to bolt for the stairs. “I freaked. I was completely hysterical,” says Garofalo. “I thought, ‘I am going to die in my own home.’ ” And she might have. But when she got to the stairwell, she hit a noxious wall of smoke and had the good sense to retreat to her apartment.

Four other people in the building weren’t as fortunate: longtime hospital volunteer Constance Hurley, 77; Wanda Chappell, 39, a book publisher; Maitiu Breathnach, 33, a financial analyst; and Lillian Lowder, 28, a secretary and mother of a 2-year-old. Fleeing via the same stairwell, they were killed by the smoke. Now their families want to hear from Patricia Brentrup, Macaulay Culkin’s mother, who was raising four of her six other children, including actor Kieran, 16 (The Mighty), in two adjoining apartments where the fire started. (Mac, 18, who married in June, moved out months ago, and his father, Kit Culkin, split with Brentrup in 1995.) “There haven’t been any condolences from them,” says neighbor Dominick Lodispoto, a friend of Lowder’s widower.

In the rush to save her children, fire officials say, Brentrup propped open her apartment door with a doormat, flooding the halls and elevator shafts with smoke. The cause of the blaze isn’t yet clear, but fire officials suspected Brentrup’s wall-mounted electric heaters—one of which, The New York Times reported, was stuffed with gum wrappers and other trash.

Brentrup, who was sued along with Kit for $23,000 in 1994 after her brood allegedly damaged another Manhattan apartment, had a reputation in the building for having unruly and noisy kids. When the fire started, fellow tenants immediately thought of the celebrity family. Neighbor Cary Scott, 42, says that residents “all looked at each other and said, ‘I bet you anything it has to be the Culkins’ apartment.’ I’m very angry that people are dead. [And] I will be really happy to see the Culkins leave.” Adds neighbor Laura Banks: “The angel of death passed over us.” Brentrup and the children, whose home was destroyed, were unhurt and found temporary lodging elsewhere, says family spokesman Paul Bloch. “This tragedy was very upsetting to them,” he says.

So were their neighbors—some of whom have threatened to sue Brentrup. For now, though, they’re still dealing with their own memories of terror. After firefighters came to tell Garofalo that the blaze was under control, the reporter (who had been phoning in accounts of the fire to her TV station) finally headed down the 41 flights of stairs, pausing on the 29th floor. “I looked down,” she says, “and there were two dead bodies. It was so surreal. That could have easily been me. The paramedic asked if I was going to be okay, and all I wanted was to get out of the building. So I walked over them, and I made the sign of the cross.”

Kyle Smith

Patricia Keith and Michael Sommers in New York City

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