Del. fire that killed 11 linked to oil left to heat on kitchen stove

Smoldering led to deaths from smoke inhalation

January 05, 2001|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

OAK ORCHARD, Del. - State officials here said yesterday that a blaze that killed 11 members of the same family - including a great-grandmother and seven children - began early Wednesday in the kitchen as someone apparently fell asleep while preparing a pre-dawn snack of French fries.

The victims, who shared a three-bedroom house in a rural, working-class neighborhood a few miles west of Delaware's resort beaches, all died from smoke inhalation, authorities said. They described the fire as the most deadly in the state's history.

Assistant State Fire Marshall Willard Preston said the house had two smoke detectors, but neither had batteries.

Among the dead were four women, identified by state police as 83-year-old Evelyn Shelton, a retired postal service custodian; her daughter, Elta Mae Street, 50; and Street's daughters, Jody Shelton, 31, and Jacqueline Wright, 26.

Jody Shelton's children were identified as Lashonda Shelton, 7, and Christopher Shelton, 5. Wright's five children, Jeremy Wright, 9, Latasha Odums, 7, Terence Odums, 4, Berlinda Ferdinad, 23 months, and Bertony Ferdinad, 11 months, also were killed.

The fire was put out in a matter of minutes after someone inside the house placed a 911 call at 3 a.m. Wednesday. Firefighters tried and failed to revive several of the children while neighbors watched in horror as their bodies were pulled from the smoky house.

The blaze could have burned for as little as five to 10 minutes, long enough to produce deadly toxins, according to Preston.

"A grease fire is a very fierce fire," said Preston, who led the investigation with assistance from the Delaware State Police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. "We really feel this was a smoldering fire. Typically, it would flame up, burn up all available oxygen, then smolder."

Inside the house, investigators found potatoes and a paring knife on a kitchen table. A pan of grease or cooking oil had been heated on an electric stove top, which could produce temperatures of 1,200 to 1,300 degrees, Preston said.

The blaze caused extensive smoke damage throughout the 1,200-square-foot rancher, but most fire damage was contained to the kitchen.

Fire officials said that despite rumors in the community that one of the victims made it out of the house, then returned to help others, they do not believe anyone left the house after the fire began. Investigators said they have not determined who made the 911 call from a phone in a hallway near a bedroom in the rear of the house.

Relatives and neighbors said the family struggled financially and that the house was ill-kept, with piles of trash collected in plastic bags. Sussex County officials said they had never received complaints about conditions at the house. The debris, Preston said, did not play a part in the fatal fire.

Members of Harmony United Methodist Church, where Evelyn Shelton worshiped, recently paid for a new pump at the house when they learned the family did not have running water. At the time of the fire, the house was heated by an oil furnace and had running water and electric service, officials said. "We were scheduled this week to get a dumpster over to the house," said the Rev. Claudia Waters. "Evelyn felt it was her duty to help her family, and we were trying to do what we could."

Yesterday, as family members met to arrange funerals, counselors from the Central Maryland Red Cross offered assistance to neighbors and church members. An emergency fund to help pay for the funerals has been established at Sussex Federal Credit Union, 1600 Highway 1, Lewes, Del. 19958.

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