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01.11.11

What Caused the Fire That Killed Ashley Turton?

Ashley Turton, the wife of a White House aide, died tragically Monday when her car caught fire in her garage. Pat Wingert reports on the mysterious circumstances—and what officials suspect sparked the fire.

Tragedy shook the Washington political community again when D.C. firefighters and police confirmed that a freak accident apparently claimed the life of Ashley Turton, a former top congressional aide and wife of White House legislative liaison Dan Turton. The woman was found dead in her burned-out car in her Capitol Hill garage early Monday.

Based on evidence at the scene, D.C. Fire Department spokesman Pete Piringer said investigators' "leading theory" is that Turton was trying to maneuver her BMW SUV out of her garage at 5 a.m. and around a car in the driveway when she apparently came into contact with some kind of flammable chemicals or other explosive materials. A workbench was located near the garage opening, he said.

“We’re waiting for lab results,” said Piringer. “It’s possible it was related to something mechanical, some kind of malfunction or it may be that she hit something in the garage, or something like a tricycle got stuck underneath the car.” He said Turton’s air bag did not deploy, indicating that if she did hit something, it was done at low speed. Piringer said that it was only once the fire was out and heavy smoke dissipated that responders could see that there was a body inside the car.

Ashley Westbrook Turton, 37, was one half of a well-known and well-liked Washington power couple, and her death, coming on the heels of Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' shooting in Arizona Saturday, has further shaken the Capitol Hill and White House communities. Turton started on Capitol Hill as a young woman in the office of Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-NC) and eventually rose to become chief of staff to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), before becoming a lobbyist for the Raleigh, N.C.-based utility Progress Energy. Her husband is the White House's deputy director of legislative affairs for the House of Representatives. Turton had 4-year-old twin boys and a 2-year-old daughter.

Pete Rouse, the interim White House chief of staff and a longtime Hill powerhouse, sent out an email informing Dan Turton's colleagues of his wife's death. "Many of you have worked with both of them during their careers on Capitol Hill," Rouse wrote. "They exemplify the definition of public servants. We are making every resource available to Dan and his family in his moment of need."

Turton was apparently getting an early start to her day because Progress and another North Carolina utility company, Duke Energy, were announcing a $13 billion merger on Monday.

Pat Wingert is a Newsweek correspondent based in Washington DC who covers society, politics, policy, education and health.