Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Police & Fire

Four children die as blaze levels East Side home

Just two blocks away, four more dead.

An intense early morning fire at 618 Willard St. in East Toledo yesterday took the lives of four girls ranging in age from 3 to 17 as the home's resident and neighbors tried in vain to save the victims.

The blaze, the second in a two-block area of East Toledo in about two months, apparently started on a couch on the porch of the home of Gabriel Garza. It quickly raged out of control and heavily damaged two nearby homes.

Toledo Fire Chief Michael Bell said last night that the victims were identified as Julie Kintz, 17; Brandy Cladman, 12; Mianna Moore, 11; and Melani Murphy, 3. Chief Bell said the Lucas County coroner's office will attempt to make official identifications on the bodies today.

The youths, who were the children of Mr. Garza's friends, were staying overnight with him. He and a 14-year-old girl escaped from the home, but his efforts to save the other children were unsuccessful.

“I don't know what I'm going to do,” a tearful Mr. Garza, 45, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “I tried everything I could do but it wasn't enough. I know [my best friend] will never forgive me. I feel completely empty inside.”

A fire on May 24 killed three children, ages 1, 2, and 6, who were trapped inside a house at 1209 Navarre Ave. and fire officials went through the neighborhood distributing free smoke detectors after that blaze.

Chief Bell said fire investigators consider the origin of the yesterday's two-alarm blaze suspicious, but don't consider it arson.

He said the home had smoke detectors, but it is not known if they were working.

Fire investigator Dale Pelz said the fire remained under investigation and the final determination may be made in two days. Toledo police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and the FBI assisted in the investigation.

Mr. Garza said he and the children were upstairs when he heard glass breaking about 3:30 a.m. He said when he went to the front door to investigate, he found the porch engulfed in flames.

Mr. Garza said he ran upstairs to gather the children and instructed them to hold hands so he could lead them out of the house. When they started walking down the stairs he lost sight of the children because of the thick smoke in the house.

“I thought we were still all holding hands,” he said. “We went out the back door because we couldn't go through the front because of the fire. When we walked out, I had one girl.”

Neighbors said Mr. Garza tried frantically to get back into the home through the back door. He then climbed to a second-floor deck, but in both instances he was driven back by smoke. Mr. Garza said by the time he found a ladder to place on side of the house, the home was engulfed in flames.

“They were like my kids, and they meant a lot to me,” Mr. Garza said. “Maybe I should have tried harder. I should have went back in no matter what.”

Coretta Martin and Sarah Palichuck, along with children in the neighborhood, brought stuffed animals and placed them on the sidewalk in front of where the home once stood.

Ms. Martin said she was at Ms. Palichuck's home at 633 Willard, when she saw the fire.

“It spread so fast - faster than charcoal,” Ms. Martin said. “People tried to get them out because you could hear them screaming. The front portion of the house went up in seconds.”

The blaze left a stack of charred wood and debris at 618 Willard and caused heavy damage to neighboring residences at 614 Willard and 622 Willard. Battalion Chief Jerry Abair said the neighboring homes likely will have to be razed.

The fire was so intense that it burned the grass in the front yard and melted a portion of a car parked in front of the home.

“You rarely see heat damage do that to grass and a car,” Chief Bell said. “That's just an indication of just how intense the fire was. The heat really gave us a lot of problems on our initial approach.”

Chief Bell said firefighters were called to the scene about 3:30 a.m. He said when they arrived, they found the home at 618 Willard engulfed in flames, and the fire had jumped to 614 Willard and to 622 Willard;a second alarm was then declared.

Beverly Sieminski and her husband, Timothy P. Sieminski, were asleep at 614 Willard when their son, Timothy S. Sieminski, 31, woke them and told them there was a fire next door.

“I grabbed the phone to call 911,” Ms. Sieminski said. “By the time I got off, our porch was on fire. We just ran out of the house into the backyard. We heard a girl screaming, `Get me out of here,' from next door. We grabbed a ladder but the fire was just so strong. This is terrible. There wasn't much we could do.”

Loretta Altenbaugh, 88, had lived at 622 Willard for 53 years. She was at Hemlock Lake, near Hillsdale, Mich. A son called and told her about the fire.

Ms. Altenbaugh sat in a chair provided by a neighbor across the street as she waited for fire officials to allow her into her home.

“My bedroom is in the back yard,” Ms. Altenbaugh said as she sat with her daughter and son-in-law Elizabeth and R. J. Rowland. “I raised my children there and I have a lot of special memories.”

About 1 p.m. Ms. Altenbaugh entered her home to gather her belongings.

“She found a chain [necklace] my brother had given her so she's doing fine now,” said Mrs. Rowland. “My brother died of a heart attack in September, and that's been hard on her. We were able to get her jewelry box as well. You can't replace people so we're happy she's safe.”

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