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Published: Monday, 10/25/2004

Fire kills 7 children in Toledo

BY CHRISTINA HALL
AND STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Seven children, including two toddlers and a 7-month-old, have died in one of Toledo's worst residential fires.

Several people who heard the screams of the children tried to save the children yesterday afternoon by entering the burning South Toledo apart-

ment, but were unsuccessful.

Talia Sanders, 19 months old; Tanija Sanders, 7 months old, and Terri Sanders, 6 years old, were pronounced dead at Toledo Hospital, said Dr. Diane Barnett, Lucas County deputy coroner.

Quanisha Kirk, 7, Brionna McCullough, 2 1/2, and Teairia McCullough, 7, were pronounced dead at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center. Brian McCullough, 5, died at 1:07 a.m. this morning at St. Vincent's.

The two-alarm fire was reported about 2:40 p.m. yesterday at the Norwich Apartments, just east of Reynolds Road and north of Airport Highway, authorities said.

Six of the children are siblings. The seventh, Quanisha, is their cousin. All of the victims were between six months to 7 years old.

"They're good kids, all of them. They're good kids," said Natalie McGowan, whose sister Melinda Ragland is the mother of five of the dead children and the hospitalized boy.

"They're very tight-knit, very close. It's just a tragedy to us that this has happened, and we hope that the family can pull together and get through this," she said, tears welling in her eyes.

Toledo Fire Chief Mike Bell said "it's always extremely bad when you're dealing with kids." Toledo Fire Chief Mike Bell said "it's always extremely bad when you're dealing with kids."
LISA DUTTON / BLADE Enlarge

Ms. McGowan said Ms. Ragland - who wept and hugged those around her at the fire scene - was devastated.

"She's not good," Ms. McGowan said. "I hope and pray God gets us through this."

This was the worst fatal residential blaze in the city in recent memory and the worst in Lucas County since a Monclova Township fire in 1965 left six children dead.

"It's always extremely bad when you're dealing with kids," Fire Chief Mike Bell said.

The blaze began on the second-floor of the two-story building, which houses five units. It may have started in a bathroom or bedroom area, he said.

The cause of the fire at the Norwich Apartments remains under investigation. So is the cause of the children's' deaths. Chief Bell said the children had smoke-inhalation-type injuries. Autopsies are scheduled for today.

Chief Bell said the fire spread to two neighboring apartments, which may have sustained smoke damage. A damage estimate was unavailable last night.

No adults were inside the apartment when firefighters entered and found the children in the upstairs part of the unit, authorities said. They were trying to determine if any adults were in the residence when the blaze started.

Ms. McGowan, who lives in the complex, said her sister told her that she was on her porch when the fire began.

"When she turned back and looked up, there were flames everywhere," Ms. McGowan said.

Neighbors and others in the area who saw smoke and flames pouring from the apartment also tried to help. Some ran inside and tried to climb the stairs to reach the trapped children.

Kevin Burwell, who lives two buildings away from Ms. Ragland's apartment, said he and his next-door neighbor, Joe Jaramillo, couldn't get past the thick smoke and intense heat on the stairway.

"There was just smoke pouring out and those kids were screaming," he said. "I hope those screams leave me. I hope they don't stick with me, because that was terrible."

Mr. Burwell said as he ran toward the burning apartment, he saw the children's mother shouting for help.

"She was hollering, 'All my babies are in there, all my babies are in there,' '' he said.

Mr. Jaramillo said his children were playing outside his apartment when his daughter noticed the blaze.

He said he ran over to the burning apartment and raced up the stairs, only to face a wall of flames and thick, black smoke. Mr. Jaramillo said he tried a fire extinguisher he found in the house, but it was empty.

"As soon as I got up to the top of the stairs, the fire was right there," he said. "I was trying to save those kids. ... I just wish I could have done a little more."

Chief Bell said firefighters arrived on the scene within a minute after the blaze was reported and were in "rescue mode" trying to get the children out of the apartment.

"[The firefighters] did whatever they had to do as quickly as they could," the chief said.

But some onlookers at the scene expressed anger at what they said was a slow response by emergency crews.

Roland Yates, a friend of Terry Sanders - who is the father of Terri, Talia, and Tanija Sanders - said he saw some of the first firefighters on the scene talking on radios and unrolling hoses.

"I just don't understand why those kids were not being gotten to after 15 minutes," said Mr. Yates, a former resident at the complex who was visiting friends in another building when the fire started. "People were losing it. I was losing it, because those are my friend's kids."

Johnny Johnson, who lives in the building next to the one that burned, said he was cited for obstructing official business while trying to help one of three children who had been carried outside by firefighters.

"I was holding this little girl, rubbing her hands, whatever I could do," he said. "A firefighter picked her up and ran with her to an ambulance. They couldn't do it all themselves."

Three of the girls - Teairia McCullough, Terri Sanders, and Quanisha Kirk - were students at nearby Reynolds Elementary School.

Anthony Branaugh, assistant principal at Reynolds, said the girls were well-liked by teachers and fellow students.

"They were really, really sweet, sweet girls," he said. "Very nice, playful, were just great friends to everybody. And I specifically always remember Quanisha giving me hugs in the morning in the cafeteria. They were just really sweet little girls."

Kara Kasubski, a kindergarten teacher at Reynolds, remembered that Terri Sanders was her "No. 1 helper" last year.

"She was an absolutely delightful little girl who was always helping me and helping children and I'm deeply saddened," she said.

The quiet girl, who often wore her hair in braids, enjoyed computers, making pictures, and working with letters in kindergarten, Ms. Kasubski said.

The girl's mother often brought her to school and attended parent-teacher conferences, Ms. Kasubski said.

Teairia McCullough was also very quiet and well-behaved, said Michelle Nordhaus, her first-grade teacher this year.

Teairia liked math, reading, art, and gym. She typically greeted her teacher with a hug at the beginning of each day, right after eating breakfast at the school, and Mrs. Nordhaus usually reminded her to wipe the crumbs off her face. Teairia also gave her teacher a hug at the end of the day.

Although Teairia didn't talk much, her big smile and eyes indicated she enjoyed a recent field trip to Erie Orchards & Cider Mill, Mrs. Nordhaus said.

Quanisha Kirk appeared to enjoy reading most in her first grade class this year, her teacher Jean Spies said.

"She could read and she was making progress with reading," Mrs. Spies said.

Quanisha sang with other students at an ice cream social Thursday evening, Mrs. Spies said. The girl liked the classroom's puzzles and learning centers and playing on the swings. She appeared to always try her hardest and would raise her hand to answer questions, but she was quite shy.

Mrs. Spies expects lots of tears in her classroom today, but she is unsure what she will tell the children. In 29 years of teaching, she has never had to talk about a student's death.

Mrs. Nordhaus also hadn't decided what she would tell her class this morning.

"I'm thinking, 'How am I going to make it into the room tomorrow?' " she said. "I'm sure I will be up all night."

Many of Teairia's classmates will have heard about her death; some live in her apartment complex. But Mrs. Nordhaus predicted that few will fully comprehend it.

"I'm expecting a lot of questions more so than tears. 'Where's she going to go? What happened?' " Mrs. Nordhaus said.

Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Eugene Sanders, no relation to the victims, said additional counselors will be available for students and staff today. He said he intends to be at Reynolds this morning.

Deputy Fire Chief Bob Metzger said stress debriefing was mandatory for some firefighters and voluntary for others after the tragedy.

The offer was extended to members of the Sylvania and Maumee Life Squads, which also assisted in treating and transporting the children.

The Greater Toledo Chapter of the American Red Cross is providing food, clothing, and shelter to four families who live in the damaged building.

Blade staff writer Jane Schmucker contributed to this report.

Contact Christina Hall at: chall@theblade.com or 419-724-6007.



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