Smoke inhalation blamed for fire deaths in Starkville


By Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press and Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Autopsies show that the six children and three adults killed in a Starkville apartment fire died of smoke inhalation, Oktibbeha County Coroner Michael Hunt said Tuesday.

Hunt said their deaths were an accident and there were no signs of foul play.

Investigators, meanwhile, were still working to figure out what sparked the blaze early Monday morning. It killed several family members who were taken in because they had nowhere else to go.

Hunt ordered autopsies on the three adults and said the children would have been examined if anything abnormal was found. Autopsies were not needed for the kids, he said.

The victims were India Williams, 25, and her three children, along with her cousin, Castella "Maria" Bell, 18, and her three children. The ninth victim was 20-year-old Lakesha Gillespie, identified by the West Memorial Funeral Home as a friend. The children were ages 6 months to 6 years.

Richard Vasser, the father of two of Williams' children, had returned from Iraq on Christmas Eve to his base in Missouri and was traveling to Mississippi on Tuesday to prepare for the burial of his sons, said Vasser's mother, Katherine Key.

Key said she was ill during Christmas and had not yet delivered the childrens' presents. She and her son were looking forward to visiting with them soon.

"I lost my boys, and it's very, very hard," she said.

Neighbors said Williams, who worked at a Popeye's restaurant, took in Bell and her children recently because they had fallen on hard times. They said Williams and Gillespie were a couple.

Ronald Williams, India's cousin, said he can't understand what went wrong because the two communicated on a computer Web site after 1 a.m., just hours before the fire, and everything was fine.

"She was a kind person with a big heart and she loved those kids," he said. "She was the type of cousin that if she saw me 300 yards away she would take off in a sprint until she got to me and give me a hug."

It's not clear how long it will take to determine what started the fire. Joseph Ammerman, director of special projects for the Mississippi Insurance Department, said that because nine lives were lost, investigators will not release anything until they know exactly what happened.

Officials determined Monday that the fire started in the living room. They also said that arson was not likely.

Some of the tenants told the AP that there were electrical problems in some of the apartments and that smoke detectors did not work.

The fire chief said a private company's recent inspection found no troubles, and Starkville Mayor Parker Wiseman said no one had reported problems to city code officials. Complex owner Mildred Rollins also said she was not aware of any such problems. She would not comment further.

The children killed were identified as Kamarion Williams, 2, Jacorian Vasser, 6, Richard Vasser, 5, Ta'Nayia Bell, 4, Jayvion Bell, 3, and Sumaya Bell, 6 months.

Funeral arrangements are being handled by West Memorial Funeral Home but were incomplete Tuesday.

State fire marshals originally said the fire was the second deadliest in state history, but they now believe it to be the fourth deadliest. A 1940 fire at a Natchez nightclub killed 209 people, a 1982 fire at the Harrison County jail killed 27 people and a 1978 fire at the Ellisville state school killed 15 people, said Ricky Davis, Mississippi chief deputy fire marshal.

Fire safety tips

In light of the deadly Starkville fire, the state fire marshal's office has issued these safety reminders:

* Make sure the residence is equipped with working smoke alarms.

* If you cannot afford one, call your local fire department and ask if any are available. The fire marshal's office has provided free smoke alarms that are distributed by local fire departments.

* Have an emergency escape plan. Ideally, it should include at least two different ways out of the home and out of each room.

* Practice the escape plan at least twice every year, more often if the makeup of the family changes.

* Allow children to master fire escape plans and hold a fire drill at night when they are sleeping. The drill does not need to be a surprise.

* Determine whether children and others can readily awaken to the sound of the smoke alarm. If they fail to awaken, assign someone to wake them up in the drill and in a real situation.

* Make sure all doors and windows leading outside open easily.

* Make arrangements in your plan for anyone in your home who has a disability.

* Practice getting low and going under toxic smoke to the exit.

* Closing doors on your way out slows the spread of fire.

* If you are trapped by a fire, close all doors between you and the fire and use duct tape or towels to seal the door cracks and cover air vents to keep smoke from entering. If possible, open windows at the top and bottom so fresh air can get in. Call the fire department to report your exact location or wave a flashlight or light-colored cloth at the window to let firefighters know where you are located.

Source: Mississippi Insurance Department and State Fire Marshal

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