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Published: Tuesday, 10/26/2004

Smoke caused fatalities: 7 fire victims died of inhalation, coroner says

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A blaze that killed seven children at a South Toledo apartment Sunday afternoon began at or around a bed in an unoccupied rear bedroom on the second floor of the unit, a city fire official said yesterday.

The cause of the two-alarm fire at the Norwich Apartment complex, which caused about $30,000 damage, remains under investigation

Firefighters found six of the children in a front bedroom of the four-bedroom unit. The seventh, an infant, was found in a crib in another rear bedroom, Deputy Fire Chief Bob Metzger said.

Five-year-old Brian McCullough, died early yesterday at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center. His sisters, Brionna McCullough, 2; Teairia McCullough, 7; Talia Sanders, 19 months; Tanija Sanders, 7 months, and Terri Sanders, 6, and their cousin, Quanisha Kirk, 7, died Sunday.

Kemon Thornton, 6, wipes the tears from the cheeks of his mother, Lakeisha Hopings, a resident of the complex. Kemon Thornton, 6, wipes the tears from the cheeks of his mother, Lakeisha Hopings, a resident of the complex.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

All seven children died of smoke inhalation, according to the Lucas County coroner s office. A ruling on the manner of their deaths is pending further police and fire investigation.

Melinda Ragland, the mother of six of the dead children, told family members she was outside on her porch at 5118 Norwich Rd. when the fire began, her sister, Natalie McGowan, told The Blade.

Ms. Ragland turned back, looked up, and saw flames, Ms. McGowan said.

Investigators declined comment yesterday on Ms. Ragland s whereabouts prior to the blaze, which was reported about 2:40 p.m. Fire officials said there were no adults inside the apartment when firefighters went inside.

According to court records, Ms. Ragland was charged in June, 2002, with misdemeanor child endangering after she left her son, Brian, then 2, unattended for at least a half-hour.

The boy wandered away from home and was seen alone for about 30 minutes in a gas station parking lot about a block away at 1031 South Reynolds Rd., court records indicate.

Ms. Ragland pleaded not guilty, and her case was set for trial. A police officer was present for the trial, but Ms. Ragland apparently did not appear and a bench warrant was issued for her arrest. The case is still pending in Toledo Municipal Court.

Dean Sparks, executive director of Lucas County Children Services, declined comment yesterday on whether the agency had prior contact with the family. He said his agency has received no allegations of neglect or abuse in connection with the fire.

Toledo police and fire investigators are conducting numerous interviews and also are trying to determine if there is any criminal culpability in the deaths. No charges have been filed, Police Chief Mike Navarre said.

Fire Chief Mike Bell said it could be a day or two before the investigation is complete.

In addition to city police and fire investigators, the state fire marshal s office, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and an investigator with the property s insurance company are investigating the blaze.

Anthony Osley, left, describes what he saw during the fire to Assistant Fire Marshal Keith Loreno. A fire official said there were some 'operability issues' over two smoke detectors.
Anthony Osley, left, describes what he saw during the fire to Assistant Fire Marshal Keith Loreno. A fire official said there were some 'operability issues' over two smoke detectors.
MORRISON / BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

Fire officials said there were two smoke detectors in the apartment, one on each floor. Deputy Chief Metzger said there may have been some operability issues with those detectors. Firefighters reported that they did not remember hearing any alarms when they went inside to retrieve the children.

Representatives of the Schroeder Company, which manages the property, said the smoke detectors were checked Oct. 8 and were believed to be in working order.

Kerry Allison, property supervisor, said Ms. Ragland has lived in the apartment since January, 2002. Ms. Allison said Ms. Ragland and neighbors in two adjoining units affected by the fire will be transferred to different units, either within the complex or to another property held by the owners. The Greater Toledo chapter of the American Red Cross is currently assisting those families with food, shelter, and clothing.

A Keep Out sign was taped to the front door of the burned apartment, which was decorated with Halloween items. The front area of the property was encircled by red and yellow police and fire tape in the morning and was fenced off by night.

Ms. Allison and the property manager yesterday placed a vase with seven white roses in front of the apartment, where a makeshift memorial of other flowers, stuffed animals, candles, balloons, letters, and cards was growing.

Red Cross volunteers passed out teddy bears to grieving children and others who came to pay their respects.

They also passed out brochures on fire safety and how to cope with tragedies.

I know God is gonna take care of this situation, said Lakeisha Hopings, a resident of the apartment complex who said she is a close family friend.

She and Hardy Thornton accompanied their 6-year-old son, Kemon Thornton, who carried an oversized stuffed bear to the memorial. Kemon went to school with Terri Sanders and wanted to give one of his bears to the victims.

They were real quiet and sweet. The babies, they were beautiful, happy kids. Brian was cheerful. He loved to ride his bike and he loved his hair in braids, Ms. Hopings said.

Denise Sanders, grandmother of the Sanders girls, last saw the children after she had left church Sunday.

I kissed all of them. They all ambushed me and said, Hey Granna!, she said. They were sweet. They weren t bad kids. They had a lovable spirit.

Rev. Sylvester Rome, pastor of Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church and a spokesman for the family, agreed. He said the children were in junior choir and participated in church plays.

The family is so devastated, Reverend Rome said, that it is difficult to talk with them about funeral arrangements.

A service may be held for all the children later in the week at Indiana Missionary Baptist Church.

The reports at the hospital came one by one this one passed, then another, the reverend said. It was a very emotional experience.

Mayor Jack Ford said two funeral homes have come forward to help cover funeral expenses and the city is donating cemetery plots for the children at Forest Cemetery.

The mayor said $3,000 to $3,800 is needed to cover the additional expenses. The city is helping to coordinate efforts and anyone interested in helping is asked to call 419-245-1004.

Also yesterday, a candle was lighted in the youngsters memory at the Toledo Children s Memorial at Jackman Road and Eleanor Avenue in North Toledo.

Authorities urged residents to make sure they have working smoke detectors and escape plans in the event of a fire.

Ms. Hopings said the tragedy makes one appreciate life.

Hug your babies, she said tears streaming down her cheeks.

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



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