Monday, December 18, 2017
Public safety

Father: 5-year-old son killed in St. Petersburg house fire was playing with lighter


When Robert Vann awoke to the smell of smoke and a blaring fire alarm Tuesday, he said he had no idea what started the blaze that would kill his 5-year-old son.

His 4-year-old daughter, the father said, would later tell him she saw her brother Hassan Jerome Vann, 5, playing with a lighter in his bedroom.

"He was fascinated with the lighter," Robert Vann, 71, said Wednesday. "He was flicking it and watching the flame."

The child's curiosity turned into a family's nightmare. Something in the room caught fire, and the blaze spread.

The mother heard the alarm and woke the father. The two rushed out of the house with their daughter, Hassana, not realizing that Hassan was still trapped inside.

Outside, the mother, Ebony Vonkisha Jackson, 36, cried that her "baby" was still inside, witnesses said. They said the fire quickly engulfed the home.

"I tried to get back to get in the house, tried to get to him," the father said. "But the flames wouldn't let me."

It took firefighters 12 minutes to put out the fire, St. Petersburg police said. When they entered the home, the found the boy dead in a bedroom.

St. Petersburg police did not respond to a call for comment Wednesday about the father's explanation of what started the fire. Police said in a statement earlier that day that the cause of the fire has not yet been determined, and no charges are pending.

Hassan died of smoke inhalation, according to police, while his mother, father and sister escaped the blaze at 2701 Sixth St. S unharmed. Two older siblings, Elmira, 9, and Robert Vann Jr., 7, were at school.

The fire started in the children's bedroom, police said, in the northeast end of the home. It set off a working smoke alarm in the living room, police said. The house was a total loss.

That's where a large crowd gathered Wednesday afternoon to celebrate the life of Hassan, who also went by "Chip."

His mother wore all white and dark sunglasses, her arm in a sling. She said the family was mourning and did not wish to speak to reporters.

Photographs covered posters outside the home with messages to "Lil Chip" scrawled with a marker. More than two dozen balloons waved above a pile of stuffed animals, including a yellow bike that Hassan's nephew, Kenya Walker, said the boy loved to ride.

"He was just a mischievous kid doing mischievous things," Walker, 18, said. "But he had a good heart. We miss him."

Times staff writer Sara DiNatale and correspondent Amber Sigman contributed to this report.

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