Cause of fatal fire may have been accidental

Published 12:13 pm Monday, December 5, 2022

SALISBURY — The cause of a residential fire in the 800 block of S. Church Street in the wee hours of Friday morning in which two children died may have been accidental and related to a space heater, according to a Red Cross spokesperson.

Police Chief Jerry Stokes and Fire Chief Bob Parnell said they are not yet ready to verify that information, however. Both men said the cause remains under investigation.

Two children, ages three and four, died in the fire and a woman remains hospitalized in the burn unit at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Hospital.

In a press conference Monday afternoon, Parnell said firefighters “on their arrival went immediately into the house to try to rescue whomever was inside,” said Parnell. There were, he said, four people inside the home at the time of the fire, including the two children. “In my 38 years in firefighting in this city, I saw some of the most tremendous efforts to get in there to get to those children. Unfortunately the fire had consumed the floor of the room which they were in and they could not be saved. We are certainly praying for their family, praying for them and praying for the firefighters who tried so valiantly to save them.”

Parnell brought out the heavy, protective fire coat and helmet one of the firefighters at the scene was wearing the night of the fire. The helmet is black and the coat bears scorch and burn marks. One of the firefighters was treated at the scene for injuries, then taken to Rowan Medical Center where he was treated and released, but continues to recover.

“We are certainly concerned about the firefighters that encountered and made an effort to rescue the family and we are offering our peer support team sessions with firefighters, and they participated in some this morning,” Parnell said.

“The Salisbury fire marshal is responsible for determining the cause and origin of the fire, and we partner with them because there were deaths in this incident,” added Stokes. “Therefore we are conducting a death investigation, and we certainly consider deaths to be criminal until we determine otherwise, but that does not necessarily mean ‘yes this is criminal.’ We are just taking all steps necessary to ensure that there was no criminal act in the fire that caused these deaths. Because these two children died, we decided to seek assistance from state and federal agencies.”

Stokes said his department is also offering peer counseling for officers involved in the investigation who “were there processing the scene, sifting through and collecting evidence.”

The two-story house is divided into two apartments, upper and lower, and four people were in the downstairs apartment when firefighters arrived. The upstairs tenant, who was at home alone at the time of the fire, had managed to get out of his apartment by that time.

The adult male in his 40s who lived upstairs had been in the apartment about a month, according to family members. The man, who has not been identified, said he was sleeping on his couch in the living room when he woke up to the smell of smoke sometime around midnight, and saw smoke in the air.

He went to the exterior door which was at the top of an outside stairway, and when he opened the door to get out, the draft caused one of the windows in his apartment to shatter. He made it down the stairs and banged on the downstairs door to rouse the neighbors. His sister said he had numerous interactions with his downstairs neighbors, including the children, with whom he often shared candy, and their loss has been beyond difficult for him.

“He is struggling so much with survivor’s guilt right now,” she said. But she also said when firefighters arrived, they put ladders up to the second floor right away for rescue efforts and her brother immediately redirected them to the first floor, letting them know he was the only resident of the top floor and was out safely. And she said he did everything he could to get his neighbors out.

There is little left in the home, according to family members. The upstairs resident has the clothes he escaped the fire wearing and not much more. The family has established a GoFundMe for him and the Red Cross is also opening a case for all affected. A spokesperson noted that the Disaster Action Team is already working on connecting with those affected, and an Integrated Care and Condolence Team will reach out to the family of the children to make sure they are aware of all benefits and support available to them. Anyone who wishes to make a donation via the Red Cross can call 800-REDCROSS or donate to the Salvation Army, noting it is for the victims of the South Church Street fire.