Child blamed in fatal blaze

Two in apartment killed; boy, 6, known to have played with fire before


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A 6-year-old boy playing with a lighter inside a Friendship apartment early Wednesday sparked a fire that killed two people and left his own family homeless, investigators said.

The boy torched a piece of paper just before 2 a.m. and set it atop a pillow on a couch in his mother's second-floor apartment, one of three units in a converted house in the 100 block of South Graham Street. He then tossed the pillow behind the couch, setting it ablaze, city fire investigators said.

The flames spread to an apartment on the third floor, where firefighters found a woman and a man overcome by smoke. The woman was pronounced dead at the scene, and the man died at West Penn Hospital, according to the Allegheny County medical examiner's office, which did not release the names of the dead Wednesday night, saying it had yet to locate their next-of-kin.

The building's owner, Robert Dax, said the woman was 49-year-old Koko Doungbe, who moved to Pittsburgh from the west African country of Togo and had been living in his building for more than six years.

He said she came here at the urging of her brother and described her as "a hard worker" who did manual labor for a living. Mr. Dax did not know the identity of the man who died in her apartment.

A woman living on the first floor, Rozalyn Jackson, escaped unharmed and ran to her nephew's house in search of help because her neighbors were still trapped inside.

"She said she heard banging upstairs and before she knew it she smelled smoke," her nephew, Chris Lane, said. "She's shook up. She needs some rest."

Neighbors said they could hear the boy's mother saying her 6-year-old son set the blaze. She and the boy tried to put the fire out themselves before calling 911, investigators said.

It was still too early to determine whether the woman should face charges, said Lt. Kevin Kraus of the police bureau's major crimes division, whose homicide detectives are also investigating. Police received information that the boy had been known to play with fire before and were "still investigating the extent of that," the lieutenant said.

The boy was taken to Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic for evaluation.

He shared the home with his mother and two brothers, ages 3 and 10, having moved there in July, Mr. Dax said. Although she was "struggling" with health and other problems, her boys were always polite, he said.

The 6-year-old is "not a trouble-maker, he's just a kid," said Will Zavala, whose young son is friendly with the boys. The middle brother did not strike Mr. Zavala as a "problem-child."

Neighbors knew little about Ms. Doungbe, who kept to herself but was eager to inquire about her neighbors' well-being if she saw them on the street, said Joseph Jones, who lives in the house next door. He sometimes saw her walking down the street with her brother, whom he thought was staying with her while visiting from Africa.

Mr. Jones' wife, Amelia, said she awoke about 2 a.m. to popping sounds and saw bright flames billowing from her neighbor's house. Police ushered her outside, where she said she watched as firefighters went to work. One of them, from Station 8 in East Liberty, suffered a minor ankle sprain and was cleared to return to work, officials said.

"We were in awe of how the firefighters were working," Ms. Jones said. "It was amazing watching them in action."

Mr. Dax has owned the building for 32 years. Fire chief Darryl Jones stopped short of describing it as a total loss but estimated the damage at about $125,000. The Red Cross was called to assist the woman and the children as well as Ms. Jackson with clothing and shelter.


Sadie Gurman: sgurman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1878. First Published February 9, 2012 5:00 AM


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