Opal Reifenberg

Opal Reifenberg on her 100th birthday celebration last August. (Family photo)

A 100-year-old Wilmette woman described by co-workers at the Wilmette Public Library as an "exceptional human being" died from carbon monoxide poisoning and smoke inhalation after a fire at her home, an autopsy today found.

Opal Reifenberg died of carbon monoxide intoxication and inhalation of smoke and soot from a house fire, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Her death was ruled an accident, according to the medical examiner's office.

Reifenberg, of the 600 block of Ridge Road in the north suburb, was pronounced dead at 10:15 p.m. Saturday at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, according to the Cook County medical examiner's office.

She was to turn 101 on Aug. 8, authorities said.

Reifenberg's youngest son Bob described his mom through her own words -- something she said on her last birthday: "I am surrounded by books and my best friends. What could be better than that?"

"She never had any intention of retiring," said her son, who said she still walked a mile a day and was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, one of six children. She has five children and 10 grandchildren, he said.

"We're devastated," said Betty Giorgi, Reifenberg's co-worker at the Wilmette Public Library.

"She still worked here. She came in every day. She was an amazing, amazing woman. She was an exceptional human being."

Reifenberg's supervisor, Gayle Justman, said she was having lunch with her husband this afternoon when she received a telephone call from work telling her about Reifenberg's death.

In tears, Justman said she was "in shock."

"It's a terrible loss," Justman said. "She was always cheerful; she loved coming to work. Her job was to process books and she did a fabulous job," Justman said.

This Aug. 17 would have marked Reifenberg's 25th year working at the library.

"I've known her all those years. The fact is she was such a role model for all of us. Always cheerful always wanted to be working. So pleasant. Just a wonderful human being,'' Justman said.

She was well-traveled, said Justman, and except for vacation, she worked Monday through Friday from 9 to noon, putting in about 15 hours a week. Justman had just seen her on Friday.

"Opal was the oldest (employee) and our youngest is 29," said Justman. "But it didn't matter how old she was. She contributed on a daily basis to the work of this department."

When she turned 100 last August, she had at least two parties -- one at the library and another, much fancier affair.

"Her family threw this wonderful celebration at the Michigan Shores Club,'' Justman said.

Her husband passed away and she has lived on her own for the past 21 years, said Justman. She had several children and grandchildren, three of whom are triplets, now in college.

Two fire chiefs and 35 firefighters from the Wilmette Fire Department responded to a fire alarm that activated at her condominium building at 2:48 a.m. Saturday, according to a statement from the Wilmette Fire Department.

Firefighters saw smoke coming from the building, spotted four occupants of the building outside on the street, and learned Reifenberg was still inside, the statement said.

Crews burst into her second-floor unit, which was "charged with smoke and fire" and found Reifenberg lying on her bedroom floor. She was taken by ambulance to Skokie Hospital, according to the statement.

The fire, which originated and was contained to the living room of Reifenberg's unit, was "quickly brought under control" and the total time crews were on scene was 3½ hours, the statement said.

The four occupants who escaped the building were allowed to go back inside after the fire was out to gather personal information but were asked to find other living arrangements until the building was cleared of smoke odors, according the fire department.

The cause of the fire was undetermined and a damage estimate was set at about $300,000, according to the fire department.

rsobol@tribune.com | Twitter: @RosemarySobol1