Coroner: 9 likely died of smoke inhalation in Starkville fire

STARKVILLE — Six children and three adults killed in a Mississippi apartment fire likely died of smoke inhalation, though autopsies on the three women were being performed Tuesday to find out for sure, the coroner said.

Investigators, meanwhile, were working to figure out what sparked the blaze early Monday morning in the east Mississippi town of Starkville, killing several family members taken in because they had nowhere else to go.

Autopsy results on the adults could be available later Tuesday or Wednesday, said Oktibbeha County Coroner Michael Hunt. Authorities don’t plan to do autopsies on the children unless they find something abnormal in the adults, he said.

Arson wasn’t suspected, and while neighbors indicated the building had electrical problems, the fire chief said a private company’s recent inspection found no troubles.

“A fire investigation is like a puzzle,” Fire Chief Rodger Mann said. “We’ve got to get enough pieces of the puzzle to get a picture of what happened.”

None of the tenants had complained about electrical problems to city officials, said Vicki Lowery, who works for the Starkville Code Enforcement Division. Complex owner Mildred Rollins also said she was not aware of any such problems. She would not comment further.

The victims were India Williams, 25, and her three children, along with her cousin, Castella “Maria” Bell, 18, and her three children. The ninth victim was 20-year-old Lakesha Gillespie, identified by the West Memorial Funeral Home as a friend. The children were ages 6 months to 6 years.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Tuesday.

Latasha Brown, who lives downstairs, said she never heard smoke detectors. A neighbor banged on her door around 4:30 a.m. to get her out. She grabbed her 3-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter and ran barefoot into the cold.

“It was horrifying,” said Brown, 28. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

Neighbors said Williams, who worked at a fast food restaurant, took in Bell and her children recently because they had fallen on hard times. They said Williams and Gillespie were a couple.

“They were the kindest people who would not turn away a friend, especially when she had kids,” Brown said.

Williams said as much in a description of herself on an Internet social networking site: “I hate to see people going without so I help when I can.”

Ramona Doss, who lives across the parking lot in another of the complex’s six two-story red brick apartment buildings, said Williams would often bring her plates of home-cooked food, and Williams’ children called her “Grandma” even though they are not related.

“Those babies just had Christmas,” Doss said. “They used to say ‘Grandma, you got any more candy?’ I’ll never hear that from them again.”

Academy Crossing is in Starkville, a city of about 24,000 full-time residents in eastern Mississippi that is also home to Mississippi State University.

The children killed were identified as Kamarion Williams, 2, Jacorian Vasser, 6, Richard Vasser, 5, Ta’Nayia Bell, 4, Jayvion Bell, 3, and Sumaya Bell, 6 months.

Holbrook Mohr/The Associated Press