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News: No Smoke Alarms!

House fires kill 4 children Officials stress need for smoke detectors

BY LAWRENCE LATANE III TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER Nov 25, 2000

Virginia fire officials stressed the importance of home smoke detectors yesterday as they recovered from a spate of grim Thanksgiving eve house fires that claimed the lives of four children.

In only one case in the three fatal fires was a working smoke detector present, said Steve Skinner, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Fire Programs in Richmond.

"A working smoke detector is one of the best things to have in your home," he said. "National statistics show it helps reduce fire deaths by 50 percent by simply having it and keeping it properly maintained" and supplied with fresh batteries.

Wednesday's fires claimed the lives of 5-year-old David Stieh, of Spotsylvania County; 6-year-old Yatoya Harper, of Roanoke; and Jason and Vickie Hamshar, of Fluvanna County, a brother and sister who were 4 and 2, respectively.

The Hamshar home, in Scottsville, was equipped with a smoke detector but the smoke was so thick that Jason Hamshar, the children's father, told county authorities he could not reach the children, who were in an upstairs bedroom.

Smoke inhalation is the chief danger from fire and the thick smoke that's generated by plastics and upholstery cushions can plunge the interior of a home into inky darkness.

"In some cases, you can't see the hands in front of your face," Skinner said.

All three fatal fires are still under investigation.

Three other fires that struck in the Richmond area yesterday forced 11 people, including a family of seven, from their homes, but caused no injuries.

Capt. Doug Albrecht, spokesman for Spotsylvania County's fire and rescue services, said the lack of smoke detectors delayed discovery of the fire that killed 5-year-old David Stieh.

Stieh's mother, Barbara Stieh, and 3-year-old twin siblings, Dustin and Sarah Stieh, were treated for smoke inhalation. Dustin remains in the intensive care unit at Medical College of Virginia Hospitals.

Albrecht said that by the time Mrs. Stieh noticed smoke about 9 a.m. Wednesday, the upstairs hall outside her bedroom was filled with flames. She escaped by retreating into her bedroom and climbing onto the burning porch roof and jumping, he said.

Neighbors crawled into the smoke-filled kitchen and found the 3-year-old twins unconscious near the kitchen door, Albrecht said.

A well-placed smoke detector can provide an early warning of a fire before it becomes life-threatening, Albrecht said.

"I have three in my house, which is a single-story rancher - and I wonder if I have enough," he said. "It is so crucial to have that extra time that early detection permits," he said. "It provides extra escape time."

The state Department of Fire Programs has used federal and state grants over the past two years to buy and give away 19,000 smoke detectors in various localities across the state.

Skinner said that 21 lives had been credited with being saved because those smoke detectors had been installed in homes.

Smoking in bed and a space heater left too close to combustible materials were blamed for two of three fires in Richmond early yesterday.

The family of seven escaped safely from the 3:43 a.m. fire in Richmond's near West End but their house was heavily damaged, fire officials said.

The local American Red Cross was providing emergency shelter, food and clothing to the family, which includes a 17-month-old girl.

The fire, at 526 S. Sheppard St., was blamed on careless smoking, said fire Lt. Tina Watkins. Flames also spread to the adjacent dwelling at 528 S. Sheppard.

Watkins said the fire, declared under control at 4:22 a.m., caused an estimated $65,000 damage to the 526 S. Sheppard house and $5,000 damage to the one at 528 S. Sheppard.

The three Richmond blazes kept four city fire companies on the go in sub-freezing temperatures yesterday.

Battalion Chief Robert Creasy took command of all three fires.

A space heater left too close to combustible materials, probably a bed, caused the first of the three fires, which was reported at 12:32 a.m., at a house at 3501 Rosewood Ave., near University of Richmond Stadium in the West End.

Three people living in the house escaped safely, and firefighters brought the fire under control at 12:50 a.m., Watkins said. Damage to the house was estimated at $15,000.

The other fire, reported at 2:24 a.m., was at a 17-unit apartment building at 1128 W. Grace St., just west of Harrison Street.

Firefighters evacuated the building and confined the fire to a rear, first-floor apartment where it started, Watkins said. A man living in the apartment left and was not hurt, Watkins said. The cause of the fire remained under investigation, she said.