Friday, March 23, 2012

TOP STORY >> Duplex deaths raise questions

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville Fire Department is in mourning and under pressure as one tragedy after another unfolds following the death of a veteran firefighter.

A mother and her four children died Thursday from smoke inhalation after a fire at their duplex at Max Howell Place, 3A S. Simmons Drive.

As the state fire marshal and local investigators gather evidence, residents at the complex blamed firefighters who had come to the residence earlier that day and didn’t find anything.

The victims — whose deaths went undetected for several hours — are Marilyn Beavers, 30; her son, Dequan Singleton, 10; and her three daughters, Sydni Singleton, 9, Haylee Beavers, 6, and Emily Beavers, 4.

Earlier, firefighters battled another blaze about a mile away across the freeway at 3400 Northeastern Ave. It left a vacant home a total loss.

Firefighters went to Max Howell Place at 5:50 a.m. Thursday because Jennifer Gray, who lives in 3B, reported smelling smoke next door. “It burned my nose,” she said.

Gray called 911. She said firefighters who came out told her smoke had drifted from the other fire across the freeway.

The police and the firefighters did a walkthrough of Gray’s apartment the first time they came to the duplex. They did an external walk around duplex, but no sign of smoke or fire was found. Firefighters left the scene after 30 minutes.

A thermal imager—a device that detects heat—was used.

Capt. Kenny Boyd, public information officer for the police department, said he didn’t know if the fire department was checking to see if the imager malfunctioned.

Tom Vanhoveln and Bobby Snow, maintenance men for the Jacksonville Housing Authority, which manages the duplexes, entered 3A around 7 a.m. in response to another call from Gray.

They said the smoke detector was going off when they entered.

The two men found smoke and the family in their beds.

Both said they tried to revive the mother and her children with CPR, but “it was too late.”

The fire had gone out by the time firefighters arrived for a second time at 7:30 a.m. Thursday.

Boyd said the state crime lab’s office is investigating.

Unlike the Northeastern house, the fire at the duplex didn’t leave obvious damage to the front of the building.

Aside from police tape, patrol cars, an evidence truck, the coroner’s van and news crews, everything looked normal Thursday morning.

“It hits me with the babies and it could have been my babies. It’s crazy. One day everything is fine. The next day it’s not,” Gray said.

“Common sense was telling me something was wrong. I couldn’t have busted the windows because I would have gotten in trouble. I would have (if I had know what was happening),” she said.

She works at a daycare and has two children, a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old. They were at their father’s home when the fire happened.

Gray said firefighters knocked on the door of 3A, but they left when no one answered and didn’t walk around to the back of the building.

She said that is where damage from the fire is most obvious.

The walls separating Gray’s apartment from her neighbor are thin, she explained. She said she was always hearing the children laughing and playing through them, but didn’t hear the smoke detector going off inside her neighbor’s home.

The detector on Gray’s side didn’t go off.

She said she didn’t believe the smell was from the Northeastern blaze.

The fire department first responded to that house at 6:36 a.m. Wednesday. They left at 8:41 a.m., thinking the flames were doused.

The house caught fire again at 4:09 a.m. Thursday and firefighters were there until 8:41 a.m.

Fire Marshal Mike Williams said, “The initial cause may have been the wiring,” but the fire is still being investigated because substantial damage can make the cause harder to identify quickly.

He explained that it was an older home and the owners had been away for a few weeks went to Max Howell Place when the blaze started. No one was injured.

Barbara Brooks, Marilyn Beavers’ best friend of nine years, went to Max Howell Place Thursday morning after a customer told her a woman and four children had been killed in a fire. Brooks is a sales associate at Walmart.

She said her friend worked at North Metro Medical Center, where she cleaned offices at night.

Brooks had just helped throw a birthday party for Emily Beavers, the youngest child, and the family had recently found a new house to move into.

Brooks said they were very active and had enjoyed going to the circus and monster truck rallies.

Neighbors Marqualin Scott and Cavin Kelso said they played football and basketball with Dequan Singleton, Beavers’ son.

They said his dream was to be drafted by the NFL. The whole family was very athletic and all the children loved playing outside when the weather was nice.

Their father did not live with the family because he is a truck driver, Scott and Kelso said.

They said the father visited almost every weekend and was there as often as he could be.

Brooks told friends that she had spoken with their father.

“He asked if they were all gone. I said, ‘They’re gone.’”

The tragedy at the duplex came on the heels of the city’s first firefighter death in the line of duty.

Capt. Donald Jones, a 31-year veteran of the department, was killed Monday when he was hit by a car while working an accident scene.