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Boy trapped in burning house dies

The 4-year-old's mother goes to the hospital with burns and lung damage. The home is destroyed.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

BROOKSVILLE -- A 4-year-old boy died early Saturday in a house fire that sent his mother to the hospital with severe burns and lung damage.

Christopher Acers, 4, was pronounced dead at the scene, 18005 Celia Ave., in the mossy oak-lined Garden Grove neighborhood near the county airport south of Brooksville. Jennifer Howard, 28, was flown to Tampa General Hospital, where she remained Saturday afternoon in critical condition.

Two other residents also survived the fire, which burned the 1,204-square-foot manufactured home they had owned just more than a year to its shell.

James Crowley, 43, suffered only minor injuries. His 11-year-old son, Kevin, escaped without injury.

"A very good little 4-year-old died," Crowley said of Christopher, who officials said was not his son.

He declined to comment further.

Officials did not know what caused the fire after digging through the ashes and debris for several hours Saturday morning. Sheriff's deputies and fire marshal investigators jointly were handling the scene.

"Our investigation is to see it there was anything suspicious or any foul play," Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Joe Paez said. "We're not characterizing it in any other way than the fire is under investigation."

Neighbors said they called 911 just before 7 a.m. to report a fire was consuming the 24-year-old metal and wood structure next door. The first fire engines arrived four minutes later, said Danny Roberts, Hernando County Fire Rescue operations director. Support from Spring Hill Fire Rescue came about seven minutes after.

"It was fully involved when my guys got on the scene," Roberts said.

Jennifer Howard and James and Kevin Crowley were outside the building when firefighters arrived, Paez reported. The child, Christopher, remained inside, he said.

It took just a few minutes to control the fire, Roberts said. But the interior was very dry, Paez said, and it burned very quickly, leaving little but the charred skeleton of the building.

The fire was hot enough to melt the plastic bumper and lights on a car that sat outside the house. A locksmith had to open the car and make new keys for the vehicle, because the originals were lost in the fire.

Firefighters found only a handful of identifiable items amid the rubble -- two knitted afghans, a mathematics textbook and a child's comforter with a Power Rangers design.

Just behind the house, though, a small shed appeared untouched by the fire. A newspaper also lay undisturbed in the driveway, despite the dozen or so officers, firefighters and visitors who trampled around it.

Several neighbors came out to watch, but none who was willing to talk had any concrete information to share. They said they did not know the family. Still, they offered comfort to Crowley, who went inside different homes during the investigation rather than watch.

Paez said he did not expect any additional information to be available until Monday, after an autopsy and further study of the scene.

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