By Barbara Harrington
Two children have died as a result of a fire at their Aberdeen home Feb. 22. According to Monroe County coroner Alan Gurley, Caliyha Brown, 17 months, died on Thursday morning and her sister, Caleasha Brown, 4, died at Doctor’s Hospital in Augusta, Georgia, at 4:50 p.m. on Saturday.
Aberdeen Police Chief Walter Sykes said that about 7:46 a.m. that day, the Aberdeen Police Department responded to a call on Short Street. He said a neighbor had heard an explosion and called 911.
Aberdeen Fire Chief Frank Gladney said Cassandra Armstrong, the mother, had been using gasoline as a cleaning agent inside the house. Gladney said the bathtub had gasoline in it and there was also some in a plastic jug in the bathroom. The gasoline, Gladney said, was to be used to kill lice on some clothes and then the family members were going to bathe in it. When hot water was being run, Gladney said, the hot water heater kicked on and ignited the fumes which had circulated through the house, causing an explosion and flashover.
Gladney said Armstrong and her three children were all in the bathroom area when the explosion occurred.
“If it had been another five minutes before the hot water came on, there would have been so much fumes in the house it would have blown apart,” Gladney said. According to him Armstrong had poured one-and-a-half gallons of gasoline into the bathtub.
“It was an accident,” Gladney said. “The gas she had in the bathroom traveled to the hot water heater, fumes ignited it and caused a flashover.”
According to Susan Grimes, community education director at Pioneer Hospital, at 7:28 a.m. EmergyStat responded to the 911 call for a house fire. “It is protocol for ambulance response at any house fire,” she said.
All four victims were immediately transported in one ambulance to Pioneer, knowing that it was critical they get help immediately. Upon arrival at Pioneer, Dr. Vincent Barker and Curry Justice, RN, along with EmergyStat director Tracey Burns and staff member Celeste Burns, began triage. Dr. Kevin Hayes, emergency director, and Lisa Cooper, nurse practitioner, were en route to the hospital.
At approximately 8:05 a.m., Dr. Hayes, Cooper and five additional emergency medical techs from EmergyStat arrived on the scene at Pioneer. Grimes said officers with the Aberdeen Police Department arrived to help with crowd control
“Tracey Burns and the medical staff began making contact to find an accepting hospital,” Grimes said. “Lisa Cooper had become acquainted with the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., while working in Jackson. Contact was made at 8:30 a.m. and all four patients were accepted and transportation plans were under way.
Within 30 minutes, Grimes said, a private plane carrying Dr. Fred Mullins, Dr. Allen Smith and the physicians’ assistant left Atlanta, headed this way. Jocelyn Hills, a nurse practitioner with Still Burn Center, was conducting a trauma meeting in Tunica. With the first call at 8:30 a.m., she was dispatched to get to Aberdeen as soon as possible. She arrived at approximately 9:50 a.m.
Simultaneously, Grimes said, Lear jets were summoned from Augusta and Atlanta, Ga., and Lafayette, La., to transport the patients. Each flight team consisted of a paramedic and RN to guard the patients during the flight to Augusta.
The private jet carrying the burn team landed at GTR and the team arrived in Aberdeen around 12:25 p.m., transported by Cooper’s husband, who works with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s office. The first Lear jet landed in Tupelo and a North Mississippi Medical Center ambulance brought that crew to Pioneer. Weather was an issue that day. Within 20 minutes, the other two jets landed at the Monroe County Airport and those crews were transported by EmergyStat.
The children, 8, 4, and 17 months, were transported separately to Augusta, with the 8-year-old leaving first, at about 3 p.m. The other two left afterwards, with the baby going at 3:30 p.m. The mother, who was in stable condition, stayed at Pioneer until another jet arrived at 7 p.m. As of press time, the oldest daughter, Cailin, remained in critical condition.
“Our hearts go out to the families of this tragedy,” Grimes said. “Each of you will remain in our prayers. Our thanks go out to the many individuals and organizations who assisted Pioneer during this trying time. Our medical staff and employees truly performed to the highest level possible. I am proud to be associated with this institution.”
Since its renovation, the ER has security doors blocking the entrance of the triage area. Grimes said the family and friends, some 200 of them, were held in the ER waiting room, chapel, outpatient waiting room and cafeteria.
“It was a real difficult situation to be in,” said Dr. Barker, “in a small community hospital. There was excellent response, though, from the staff.”
Dr. Hayes said, “All the burns were severe, the worst I’ve ever seen. I worked in the ER in New Orleans and these are the worst I’ve seen. It’s twice as bad when they’re pediatric patients.”
They were really impressed with the response from the Still Burn Center. “I’ve never experienced anything like that,” Hayes said.
Gladney stresses to the community the dangers of storing gasoline in the house. He said vapors from the gas had moved all over the house, and there was sheetrock blown from the wall in the bathroom and a window blown out in another room.