By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
The fire that killed nine people in a Starkville apartment in December was caused by smoking, the state fire marshal’s office said Monday.
In concluding its investigation, the office ruled the Dec. 28 blaze accidental. Its report determined that the fire originated in a chair in the living room of the apartment.
The Starkville Fire Department has not concluded its investigation, Chief Rodger Mann said Monday. Mann has previously said that his department is focusing on an 8-by-8 area in the apartment’s living room.
“We can’t eliminate smoking or three or four other things that were in that area,” Mann said.
Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney, who also serves as state fire marshal, said that investigators from his office ruled out multiple causes of the fire, with the exception of “smoking-related materials.”
Chaney said an eyewitnesses who kicked down the door and tried to save the victims was able to describe the chair where his investigators say the fire started.
The fire began around 4:30 a.m. Dec. 28. It is the fourth deadliest fire in state history and the deadliest residential fire.
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.
“There were a group of people in the apartment,” Chaney said. “No drugs or drug paraphernalia were found and there was very little alcohol use, if any. Most of the adults were smoking.”
It’s not unusual for separate investigations to release their findings at different times.
While the fire marked a tragic end to 2009, the situation has not improved this year. The state fire marshal’s office has investigated 17 fire deaths since Jan. 1. By this time last year, seven fire-related casualties had been recorded.
“The cold weather has a lot to do with it,” Chaney said. “We’ve got to do something in this state to stop fire deaths.”
Chaney did not say there was anything that the Starkville victims could have done to prevent their deaths once the fire began.
He said the building had a smoke detector, although investigators could not tell whether or not it was working. The building had been inspected a couple of months prior to the fire.
Three weeks ago, State Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Ricky Davis met with fire chiefs from across the state to discuss ways to increase fire safety. Chaney said the group will likely meet again soon.
“What we have to do is to educate children and educate the public about the risks of fire deaths,” Chaney said. “It is a never ending job. Most of the efforts in the past have been on suppression of fire and not prevention of fire. We need to educate people on prevention. It is a lot easier to prevent fires than to put them out.”
Chaney said his recommendations include having working smoke alarms, not smoking indoors and taking care to extinguish any candles that are lit.