Boy dies, six others injured in fire

Published Oct. 6, 1998|Updated Sept. 14, 2005

A 7-year-old boy died Monday after a mobile home fire that also injured three other children and three adults in his extended family.

The adults and relatives who live next door struggled to save the children after the fire started late Sunday, but they were delayed by an apparently malfunctioning smoke alarm and a coffee table blocking the front door, officials said.

Randy Johnson, 33, who lives with his parents in the home, was in his bedroom using a computer when he smelled smoke, said his brother, who lives next door with another brother.

"By the time we realized what was going on, that house was engulfed," Daniel Johnson said. "I tried to get in there, and there were flames and smoke everywhere.

"(Randy) did his damnedest to get those kids. My brothers almost killed themselves. Dad's face is burned to hell from trying to get those kids out of there."

One of the children, second-grader Benjamin Burns, died Monday morning after being airlifted to Tampa General Hospital along with four relatives. Only one of the eight family members in the double-wide mobile home, 14-year-old Michael Mohammed, escaped injury.

Three of the children were being transferred to Shriners Burn Hospital in Cincinnati. Though unsure of spellings and ages, officials identified the three as Stephanie Burns, 9, Jeremy Johnson, 11, and Matthew Mohammed, 13.

James Johnson, who owns the mobile home at 4818 W Rustic Court, was in critical condition. He also has a heart condition.

Randy Johnson, his son, was treated for minor burns, as was Cheryl Burns, Benjamin's mother. After being released, both boarded a commercial flight Monday to Cincinnati, paid for by the Shriners.

Investigators for the State Fire Marshal's Office in Tampa said that the fire most likely was accidental but that they would continue their investigation today.

Whatever the cause, the fire began in a 33-gallon plastic trash can and spread to a wooden kitchen island, said Capt. Michael Douglas, the fire marshal's lead investigator.

Witnesses' accounts suggest that panic and a blocked exit route added to confusion.

Two smoke detectors were installed in the 2-year-old home, but only one, which was farthest from the fire's source, sounded an alarm, Douglas said. Because of the distance, the fire had a chance to build before the family was alerted, he said.

Douglas said the device that malfunctioned probably had a dead battery. The other smoke detector was wired directly to household electricity, he said.

Family members told investigators the alarm didn't trigger until the house was in flames.

Clarence Beach, 49, who lives next door to his father-in-law, James Johnson, said he was awakened about 10:45 p.m. Sunday and heard the screams of some of the children.

He said he crawled through the side entrance closest to his home to look for Stephanie, whose bedroom was at that end.

"I could hear her but I couldn't get her," Beach said. "The heat and the smoke kept me back."

As Beach crawled back out, relative Andy Johnson rushed inside wrapped in a water-soaked sheet and guided victims to safety, Beach said.

Amid the confusion, a coffee table somehow blocked the front door and delayed the escape of some of the children, Douglas said. Those who suffered the worst burns ran for safety instead of dropping to their hands and knees, he said. No one attempted to escape through a window, which might have prevented injuries and death.

"I lost a lot today," Daniel Johnson said. "My family lost a lot."