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Published: Wednesday, 3/13/2002

8-year-old fire victim was locked in room; lighter found near body

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Last summer, Joshua Berning walked away from his mother's townhouse on West Alexis Road.

Toledo police found the deaf, mute, and developmentally disabled boy before his family knew he was gone.

Family members, concerned he would walk away again, took measures to keep the 8-year-old inside the two-story residence.

That's why his teenage sister locked him in her bedroom in the basement after she put him to bed Monday night. Their single mother, Valrie Berning, was working, and the teenager and a friend left the house to pick up some clothes so the friend could sleep over there.

Howard Hart from Quest Construction works on the fire-damaged house in which 8-year-old Joshua Berning died. Howard Hart from Quest Construction works on the fire-damaged house in which 8-year-old Joshua Berning died.
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The sister, Gabrielle, 17, told authorities they were gone about 20 minutes. While the girls were away, authorities believe, the boy started a fire that eventually killed him.

“I feel pretty bad for the family,” Toledo Fire Chief Mike Bell said. “Based on the circumstances, it appears they were in a Catch 22. All we can do is hope we can learn something from this, so it doesn't happen again.”

The fire at 3767 West Alexis Rd. appears accidental and most probably was started by the boy playing with an open flame, said Denis Bembenek of the city fire investigation unit.

The blaze started in the basement at or near a bed. A lighter was recovered a few steps away from the boy, who was found at the bottom of the basement stairs, he said.

“There's no indication [the fire] was intentionally set,” Mr. Bembenek said, adding that he has ruled out a mechanical source for the blaze.

He said there are indications the boy had a history of setting fires.

The preliminary cause of the boy's death is smoke inhalation, said Dr. Cynthia Beisser, Lucas County deputy coroner.

His body was burned, but there were no other signs of trauma, she said. The boy was pronounced dead at Toledo Hospital at 10:21 p.m., less than an hour after the fire was reported by a neighbor.

Investigators have discussed the facts surrounding the boy's death with John Weglian, chief of the Lucas County prosecutor's special units division. Mr. Weglian declined to file any criminal charges at this time, Toledo police Lt. Rick Reed said.

The boy's mother could not be reached for comment yesterday. The lieutenant said the boy's sister is being treated at Toledo Hospital because of the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Ms. Berning left home about 8:30 p.m. to go to her night-shift job at a retail business. She left the child-care responsibilities to her daughter, who has handled them before, the lieutenant said.

The family even removed a key from an inside door lock when the boy learned to open it. They were worried the boy would let himself out, Lieutenant Reed said.

The teenager and her friend tried to contact the friend's house to see if someone could bring over the friend's clothes. When they couldn't get through, they went to the friend's house several blocks away, leaving the boy home alone, the lieutenant said.

Next-door neighbors said they smelled smoke in their residences. Darlene LaPointe said she heard the smoke alarm in the Bernings' residence and her 15-year-old daughter said she heard the boy screaming.

The next-door neighbor on the other side of the Bernings' unit, Matthew Teal, said he threw water onto flames shooting out a rear basement window.

After firefighters forced their way into the house, they found a lot of smoke, but little flame. Fire Lt. Robert Klever found the basement door, unlocked it, and located the boy, authorities said.

Those who knew the third-grader were saddened to learn of his death.

“Joshua was a beautiful child who was making tremendous progress in our program,” said Cathy Johnson, principal of Oakdale Elementary School, where the victim was in a hearing impaired program.

The boy had attended the East Toledo school since entering kindergarten in 1998. He was a good student who was well-liked, she said.

A grief counselor who once taught at Oakdale went to the school to be with the students and school officials yesterday.

Ms. Johnson said the students remembered the funny things their classmate did and asked a lot of questions. She said they are making cards for the family, many of which have balloons on them because that's what the boy enjoyed.

An unidentified family friend said the Bernings have few relatives in the area, but friends are trying to help the victim's mother cope with the situation.

Chief Bell said the boy's death is difficult for firefighters, too. “These are the ones that are hard for us to protect against,” he said.



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