State senator calls for probe of Erie day care where fire killed 5 children
Lone smoke detector in attic, authorities say
ERIE, Pa. — A state senator is calling for a sweeping investigation of a child care center where five children died and two others were injured in a fire early Sunday.
Citing reports of missing smoke detectors and other problems at the Harris Family Daycare, Sen. Dan Laughlin, R- Erie, questioned Monday how the business could have passed an inspection late last year.
“Records from the [ state] Department of Human Services say this facility was inspected on Dec. 28. We need to know how and why Harris Family Daycare was approved for a license renewal, given the conditions cited by authorities here in Erie,” Mr. Laughlin said in a news release.
The children, ranging in age from 9 months to 8 years, could not get out of the burning home, fire officials said. The officials said the fire began on the first floor of the building; authorities said they found only one smoke detector, in the attic.
State law requires smoke detectors throughout the building.
Reports also suggested an overloaded extension cord was found behind a couch on the first floor.
According to the Department of Human Services’ child care provider database, the day care qualifies for state- approved subsidies to provide services to low- income families. The subsidies are managed through the Early Learning Resource Center for Erie County, whose representatives would not comment Monday.
DHS press secretary Erin James said in an email that the department was “mourning this tragic loss of life” and that the incident was under active investigation.
Mr. Laughlin said the center was required to have annual inspections. In December, inspectors noted five deficiencies, including cigarette butts and ash in part of the home and exposed electrical outlets.
Mr. Laughlin said those deficiencies were listed as remedied and the facility’s license was renewed. But he added that none of the inspections noted an absence of smoke detectors. Under state law, day care centers are subject to state building code regulations enforced by the Department of Labor and Industry.
“I am calling on the secretaries of Human Services and Labor and Industry to open an immediate and open inquiry into how a facility entrusted with the lives of small children failed to meet the most rudimentary standards of safety,” Mr. Laughlin said.
Three of those who died in the fire were the children of Luther Jones, a volunteer firefighter who was responding to another call early Sunday.
The Erie Times- News identified the three as Lamyhia Jones, 8; Luther Jones Jr., 6; and Ava Jones, 4. They were trapped in the blaze while their father was on a call for what turned out to be a malfunctioning alarm, Lawrence Park Township Volunteer Fire Chief Joe Crotty said.
The chief said Lawrence Park has a mutual- aid agreement with Erie, and Mr. Jones was dispatched on an engine to a call at an Erie Insurance building.
Chief Crotty said the deaths were “beyond comprehension,” and he noted the significant outpouring of support from the community.
The mother of Mr. Jones’ children, Shevona Overton, who said she is also the mother of another child killed, told television station WICU that she had “lost a piece of me that can never be replaced.”
“I’m just so hurt my babies are gone,” she added. “I love them dearly. I just hurt inside knowing that my kids were fighting and hurting in that fire. Every minute, I feel the same pain.”
Her fourth child was identified as Jaden Augustyniak, who was 9 months old. A 2year- old whose name has not been released was the fifth victim.
Flames from the fire, reported about 1: 15 a. m. Sunday, were blasting out of every first- floor window when firefighters arrived, Erie Chief Fire Inspector John Widomski told the Erie Times- News. He said the blaze appeared to have started in the living room area on the first floor.
The department’s two fire inspectors and three Erie police detectives were working to determine the cause, along with a fire expert from Allegheny County and agents from the U. S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Valerie Lockett- Slupski told the Erie Times- News that she was the grandmother of four of the children — two boys and two girls — and that they were staying at the home because their parents were working overnight.
“So, we are all at a loss, trying to figure out how this happened,” she said.
The day care owner, identified as Elaine Harris, was injured and was being treated at UPMC Mercy.
Outside the day care center Monday, a green stroller lay abandoned on the left side of the house. Throughout the day, a memorial outside expanded, with community members leaving balloons and dozens of stuffed animals.
Danika Scott, who lives next door, stood at the scene as fire inspectors went in and out of the house. She said she saw a bright orange glow early Sunday. Seconds later, she heard a piercing scream from Ms. Harris’ 17year- old son Travon, and by the time she made it outside, she saw Ms. Harris racing out the front door.
“She was in complete shock,” Ms. Scott said. “She looked like she wanted to scream but she couldn’t.”
Two of Ms. Harris’ children were on the roof. “These kids had no idea what to do,” Ms. Scott said, adding that she shouted for them to jump.
Seconds after they leaped to safety, Ms. Scott said, flames reached the spot where the children had been sitting. By the time firefighters arrived, Ms. Scott said, the first floor was already engulfed in flames.
Roshay Benjamin, Ms. Overton’s cousin, said she found out about the fire at 4 a. m. Sunday, when her mother woke her up. “I was just in shock,” Ms. Benjamin said. “To be told they were gone just hurt my heart.”
Ms. Benjamin said the death of 4- year- old Ava was especially crushing for her.
“She was my baby,” Ms. Benjamin said. “She was just happy and was full of energy. Full of life. Every time she saw me, she would give me a big smile and run up to me and give me a big hug.”
Ms. Benjamin said Ms. Overton has been staying at her house since the fire so she could be surrounded by family.
“She’s strong,” Ms. Benjamin said. “She just needs a lot of support from the community and for people to be there for her.”
An investigator removes items Monday from the burned- out Harris Family Daycare in Erie, Pa. The fire killed five children early Sunday morning. Authorities say they found only one smoke detector, in the building’s attic.
Steve Campbell, who used to live in the neighborhood, adds balloons Monday to a memorial set up outside of the Harris Family Daycare in Erie, Pa. The fire killed five children early Sunday morning.