State se­na­tor calls for probe of Erie day care where fire killed 5 chil­dren

Lone smoke de­tec­tor in at­tic, au­thor­i­ties say

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - Front Page - By Lauren Lee

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.”

Dar­rell Sapp/ Post- Gazette

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.

Dar­rell Sapp/ Post- Gazette

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.

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