4 generations die in Del. house fire

4 adults, 7 children apparently overcome by smoke from blaze

January 04, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OAK ORCHARD, DEL. - Four generations of the same family perished yesterday in a pre-dawn blaze that police and fire officials are calling the worst ever in Delaware.

The victims - 11 people, including seven children - apparently were overcome by dense black smoke that filled the three-bedroom bungalow in a rural working-class neighborhood about 15 miles southwest of Rehoboth Beach.

Fire investigators, who continued to sift through the blackened interior of the house yesterday, said they had not determined the fire's cause. They would not comment on whether the house had smoke detectors. While there was no indication of arson, Assistant State Fire Marshal Willard Preston said it has not been ruled out.

The victims' bodies were taken to the Delaware medical examiner's facilities in Seaford and Wilmington. It could be days before a ruling on the cause of death, but officials at the scene said none of the victims appeared to have been burned seriously.

"Obviously, in most of these cases it's smoke inhalation rather than fire," Preston said.

Delaware State Police refused to release the names of those killed. Relatives and neighbors said the dead included four adult women: Evelyn Shelton, who was in her mid-80s; her daughter Eltama Wright, in her late 40s; and two of Wright's daughters, Jacquelin Wright, 25, who had five children, and Jody Wright, 24, the mother of two. The children ranged in age from 1 to 9.

Quintin Odums, the father of three of Jacquelin Wright's children, said he rushed to the scene from his job at a Perdue Foods processing plant after being told of the deaths of his children. He identified them as Jeremy Odums, 9; Latosha Wright, 6; and Tae Wright, 5.

"I just talked to them last night before they went to bed," said Odums, who stood shivering and crying outside the green-sided house.

"Latosha would have been 7 [Wednesday]. Whenever I would come to visit them they'd peer out that window right there," he said, pointing to a bay window, which like all those in the house had been smashed by firefighters.

Fire officials said a 911 call was placed about 3 a.m. yesterday by someone inside the home. Investigators believe the call was made by Shelton. Neighbors said they thought that the family's matriarch made it outside, then went back to try and help the others.

The fire was the second in less than three months to claim the lives of a southern Delaware family. In November, five people, including four children, were killed in a house fire at Broadkill Beach.

Indian River and Milford volunteer firefighters, who responded to the 911 call within 10 minutes, reported seeing flames and dense black smoke pouring from the house. Paramedics were able to make their way into the house before the fire trucks arrived, according to Cpl. Bruce Harrison, a state police spokesman.

"I've been doing this for 36 years, most of my life, and this is by far the worst I've ever seen," said Chief Steve Hawkins of the Indian River volunteer company.

Five of the victims were taken to a hospital in Lewes, but none could be revived, Preston said.

Principals and school counselors went classroom-to-classroom yesterday at two elementary schools, helping children cope with news that the fire had killed three of their friends.

"We talked about how it was going to be a very sad day, and it would be sad for a while, and you might see some people crying, grown-ups or kids," said Robert Kelso, principal at Long Neck Elementary School in Millsboro, where two of the victims attended school.

Gary Brittingham, principal at East Millsboro Elementary, where another victim attended, delivered a similar message to students there. "You saw a whole variety of reactions," he said. "Some were upset. Some didn't really fully understand."

Kelso, whose school is about three miles from the house, said a typical reaction was a youngster's comment that he'd seen fire engines the night before. Both principals said they assured the children that counselors would remain available in the days to come.

Counselors from other schools in the Indian River School District assisted their colleagues at Long Neck and East Millsboro. The neighboring Cape Henlopen district sent a psychologist to help students at the schools, Indian River Superintendent Lois M. Hobbs said.

School officials sent letters home to the students' parents. Kelso said parents of classmates of the two victims from Long Neck Elementary also were notified of the deaths by phone.

Kelso said one of the victims, a boy in the third grade at the school, enjoyed playing soccer. He said another victim, a girl in the first grade, possessed "a very sweet personality.

"Both of them were very pleasant and unfailingly polite," he said.

Brittingham said he had known another of the victims, a second-grader at East Millsboro, since she was a preschooler.

"She was a wonderful, gentle, kind little girl, well-liked by everyone," he said. "She had lots of friends, and all of her teachers really enjoyed having her in their classrooms."

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