CHARLESTON (AP) —
Eight people, including a woman celebrating her 26th birthday and six young children who stayed over for a family slumber party, died Saturday when fire tore through a two-story home while they slept, officials and witnesses said.
A seventh child was on life support after the blaze, the deadliest in West Virginia’s capital city in more than 60 years, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said.
The cause was under investigation. The fire appeared to have started on the first floor of the home, Charleston Assistant Fire Chief Bob Sharp said. Jones said the home had no functioning smoke detectors; one was found in a cabinet, but it didn’t work.
A children’s picnic table, chairs and an umbrella were overturned in the yard of the home, sitting on a corner in a neighborhood tightly packed with small houses. The outside of the front of the home was blackened by the flames and smoke. Two upstairs windows were shattered and blackened, and what appeared to be an opening for an upstairs air conditioner was stuffed shut with clothes.
Sharp said two of those killed were adults and all of the children who died were younger than 8. Ten people were inside the house at the time of the fire — about 3:30 a.m. — and all were related.
Roxie Means and her 14-year-old daughter, Cassie, attended a birthday party Friday for Lisa Carter, a hotel worker whose 26th birthday was Saturday. A manager at the Holiday Inn Express Charleston Civic Center said he was told Saturday that Carter had been killed.
Carter and her two children were staying with her sister at the home, Roxie Means said.
People started showing up for the party around 2 p.m. Friday and it started outside an hour later with a cookout and toasts to the birthday girl.
“They were nice people drinking a glass of wine,” Roxie Means said. “They weren’t drunk. They weren’t overdoing anything.”
Cassie Means said she had gotten to know Carter and played with her children often. Carter told her that she was planning to get married in June and move to Pittsburgh to start a new chapter in her life.
“I love the kids,” Roxie Means said. “That’s really what hurts us.”
Cassie Means said she noticed lit candles inside the home when she attended the party Friday night.
And before she left, Carter’s two children wanted to know if she would be back on Saturday.
“I was telling the kids good night,” Cassie Means said. One of the children asked her, “‘Cassie, are you coming over to play with us tomorrow?’ I said, ‘yeah.”’
The child continued, “‘you promise me you’ll be here tomorrow?”’ Cassie Means recalled. “I said, ‘I promise you I’ll be here when you wake up to play with you. I’ll be here right when you wake up.”
Hours later, the only adult survivor was smoking a cigarette outside, noticed the fire and came running to Means’ home and started “beating down the door,” Roxie Means said.
The home was engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived. When they went inside, they immediately came across five victims and “started realizing there were a lot of people in this house, a lot of children.”
Jones said he was devastated by the news when he got the call after the fire was reported.
“I was with my children and I just grabbed them and hugged them, because I have a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old,” he said. “I walked up there and caught a glimpse of some fatalities and it’s something that’s hard to grasp. The fact that there are (six) dead children, it’s unimaginable.”
Rusty Eaton, general manager at the Holiday Inn Express Charleston Civic Center, said Carter was one of his employees. Eaton said he was notified of Carter’s death by her mother Saturday morning.
“Everybody’s taking it pretty tough, including myself,” Eaton said. “It’s a tough thing. It’s something you hope you never have to deal with.”
He said Carter had worked at the hotel’s front desk for about six months and also helped audit financial paperwork at night. He said that she felt at ease speaking with anyone and that “you didn’t have to teach Lisa personality.”
“She had one of those infectious smiles, never met a stranger. She had personality to spare,” Eaton said. “She was great with our customers, great with her co-workers. Certainly, she’ll be sorely missed by us.”
By midmorning, police had pulled the bodies out. On Saturday afternoon, police searched Carter’s vehicle still parked outside.
“She worked seven days a week, had her kids here,” Roxie Means said. “”A really nice girl. I just met her, made friends with her yesterday.”
Sharp said it was the deadliest fire in the city since seven firefighters perished in while battling a fire at a Woolworth department store in 1949.
“You can imagine how traumatizing that is to us and shocking to the community in general,” he said.