Fire investigators narrow focus in Starkville inquiry

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

Fire investigators suspect that Monday’s fatal apartment fire in Starkville started in a small area in the living room, but they are still unsure precisely what caused the blaze.
Starkville Fire Chief Rodger Mann said Wednesday that investigators are concentrating on an 8-by-8-foot area of the living room that contained electrical items, electrical outlets and a fabric chair, among other household items.
“We are looking at each of the items in this area and trying to eliminate it as a possible source of ignition or identify it as a source of ignition,” Mann said. “We’re just looking at most of the evidence we’ve collected.”
Mississippi Fire Marshal Mike Chaney said Wednesday that investigators have ruled out arson and also have ruled out a space heater that was in the apartment.
Nine people, including six children, died after the fire broke out around 4:30 Monday morning at the Academy Crossing complex in south Starkville.
It is believed to be the fourth deadliest fire in state history and the deadliest residential fire. It is also believed to be the state’s deadliest fire since a 1982 blaze killed 27 people at the Harrison County jail.
Killed were India Williams, 25; her cousin Castella “Maria” Bell, 18; Lakesha Gillespie, 20; Jacorian Vasser, 6; Richard Vasser, 5; Ta’Nayia Bell, 4; Jayvion Bell, 3; Kamarion Williams, 2; and Sumaya Bell, 6 months.
Gillespie shared the apartment with Williams and her three children. Bell and her three children were visiting.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by West Memorial Funeral Home and were incomplete Wednesday night.
Autopsies determined that the nine victims died of smoke inhalation. Oktibbeha County Coroner Michael Hunt said drug tests are performed on all autopsies as standard procedure and that those results will not be available for at least two weeks.
Toxicology tests showing the percentage of carbon monoxide compared to oxygen in the victim’s blood will also take about two weeks to complete.
Investigators have not determined why the victims were unable to escape the fire, Mann said.
Six of the victims were found in a bedroom, Hunt said. Two of them were in a bathtub and one adult was near the front door. The floor of the bedroom was covered with mattresses, Hunt said.
But the bedroom also had a rear window that could have been used for an escape.
After spending much of Monday and Tuesday sifting through burned debris at the site of the fire, investigators worked off site on Wednesday analyzing the evidence they’ve received, Mann said. That includes photographs, sketches and witness interviews.
Part of the work is just identifying some of the objects that were found at the point of origin.
“A fire investigation is a very slow-moving process and the more detailed it is, the slower it is,” Mann said. “It is intentionally slow because we want to know when we make a call that we made the proper call.”