Little girl's play turns to ashes when home burns

The 5-year-old girl stood next to a pile of blackened debris in the driveway of her home. She seemed detached as she looked at the destruction from the fire that she started.

Vanessa Walden ran to the doorway of her room, where the fire began, her finger in her mouth.

"I'm looking for something good," she said, examining the charred room. She toyed with a plastic necklace hanging from her door handle. Somehow it had escaped the flames.

Vanessa may have just been curious when she set pieces of paper on fire at her grandmother's home on 44th Avenue N a week ago Sunday. She had gotten the pink lighter from a teenage friend of the family earlier in the night, while the family was cleaning out a storage unit.

"It looked kind of like a toy, and she was playing with it to see what it did," said St. Petersburg fire inspector Mike Medley. "But intentionally setting a fire is still technically a crime. The state is not going to prosecute someone that age, though."

Vanessa must attend the Pinellas County Juvenile Stoppers Program, and she won't be alone.

Last year, 55 kids in Pinellas County attended the program, said Julie Rivard, program coordinator. Courts ordered some of them to attend. Fire investigators referred others. During the two-hour class, fire investigators show the children pictures of people who have been hurt in fires. Kids discuss the incidents they were involved in and learn about fire safety.

Vanessa was in her bedroom when she came running out and said there was a fire. Her father, Donald Walden, thought it was on the TV. As flames climbed the walls, he tried to douse them with pots of water.

But the fire kept getting worse. Soon, acrid smoke hung from the ceiling, and he knew he had to give up.

The home belonged to Walden's mother, Clara Worsham. She has owned the home since 1968, but she had rented it out for a few years when her husband was sick and lost her homestead exemption.

Her son, Donald Walden, and his wife and daughter, Vanessa, had been living with her for the past two years. Donald Walden, an engineer, cannot work because of heart problems.

Worsham said she had been struggling to keep the house even before the fire, which caused about $5,000 in damage, according to St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue. Although she has insurance to cover the damage, the taxes were almost making it impossible to stay afloat on her fixed income.

"I can't take any more stress," she said as she surveyed the damage. "It's just too hard to make it. It's sad when you're 80 years old and you work all your life and have something like this happen."

Donald Walden said his daughter didn't fully understand what she had done. "I had no idea the lighter was given to her," he said. "She thought it was a toy."

Ironically, Vanessa's homework the previous Friday had been to perform a fire drill at home with her family. The family filed solemnly out the front door that day. They did it for real two days later.

Times staffer Cherie Diez contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

Little girl's play turns to ashes when home burns 12/16/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2008 2:29pm]

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