Starkville mourns fire victims

STARKVILLE – Despite frigid weather outside, mourners were using programs to fan themselves Tuesday afternoon inside Pine Grove Missionary Baptist Church.
Nearly 400 people filled the small building located deep in Oktibbeha County – near the Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge and the Noxubee County line – as Starkville continued to bury the nine people who were killed in last week’s apartment fire.
On Tuesday, family and friends filled Pine Grove Missionary Baptist for the funeral of Lakesha Gillespie, one of the victims in what is believed to be the deadliest residential fire in state history.
Thirty eight pews were not enough for the mourners. Some sat in folding chairs, others stood along the back wall and still more watched on a closed-circuit television in the church’s fellowship hall.
“The service was very emotional; it seems like I hadn’t had time to mourn,” said Jason Williams, a cousin of Gillespie. “It was harder to mourn because it was so sudden and because it was a fire and because it was a tragedy that was such a shock. It made national headlines. This is something that doesn’t happen to our family, to make national headlines.”
Gillespie’s funeral was the second of three to be held for the fire’s victims. Buried Monday were Castella “Maria” Bell and her three children, who were visiting at the apartment when the fire broke out.
The funeral for India Williams and her three children, who lived in the apartment with Gillespie, will be today at 11 a.m. at the Starkville Sportsplex.
All six children were between 6 months and 6 years old. Jason Williams and India Williams are not related.
An investigation continues into the cause of the blaze that started around 4:30 a.m. Dec. 28 at the Academy Crossing apartment complex in South Starkville.
Investigators from the Starkville Fire Department were at the site of the fire Tuesday afternoon, but Fire Chief Rodger Mann said they are not yet ready to make a determination.
Mann said it is common for an investigation to take a long time because investigators want to be certain they are correct before making a ruling.
He said previously that investigators are focusing on an 8-by-8-foot area in the living room that contained electrical items, electrical outlets and a fabric chair, among other household items.
On Tuesday, Building E, where Williams and Gillespie lived, was surrounded by a temporary aluminum fence.
Plywood covered the doors and windows of all of the units in the building, including Unit 7, where the fire started and all nine people inside were killed.
In front of the fence, a makeshift memorial overflowed with gifts from members of the community. A wooden dinette table held unlit scented candles and flowers and was surrounded by several balloons.
Next to it, a card table was covered by a piece of plywood that was saturated with cards, more flowers and plush stuffed animals. Behind that table, another piece of plywood, attached to the landing for the unit’s staircase, served as a bulletin board with pictures of the deceased, cards and a poster board with notes from well-wishers.
That same community spirit has led people to donate about $34,000 to the Oktibbeha County Red Cross to cover the funeral expenses of the nine victims, according to chapter director Becky Wilkes.
Money has come from places as far away as Florida and Virginia and from throughout Mississippi, said Wilkes, who estimates another $8,000 will be needed to completely cover those costs.
Several churches and community groups made collections, and nearly $5,000 was raised from bucket drives outside the local Walmart and Piggly Wiggly stores.
The Little Dooey restaurant has said it will donate 15 percent of all of today’s gross sales and all tips collected to the Red Cross.
“It’s been really heartwarming to see the support,” Wilkes said.
Two other families lived in the burned apartment building. The Red Cross initially found hotels for those families and both are close to finding replacement housing.
Prairie Opportunity, a nonprofit agency, has worked with one of them to secure other housing, while Academy Crossing has found another unit for the other family, Wilkes said.
At her funeral, the 20-year-old Gillespie was remembered as someone who was, according to a member of the crowd, “always happy.”
She had attended Starkville High School and loved to “draw, sing and dance,” according to her obituary.
“What I’m going to remember the most about Kesha is her excitement,” her cousin Jason Williams said after the service. “She kept me laughing all the time whenever I saw her.”
With temperatures in the 20s and 30s, Gillespie was buried at a public cemetery off Oktoc Road near the church.
The emotion of losing someone so young was raw, and several people could be heard crying or wailing, while some even fainted. But there was also plenty of singing and praising.
The Rev. Charles Brown’s eulogy said the family received “a postcard from heaven” from Gillespie because of faith that she was in a better place.
“I feel better,” Williams said. “The word of God always inspires me and uplifts me, and I pray and trust it will do so for our entire family.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or at chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal