Six die in house fire
By ADAM SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times,
ST. CLOUD -- Rick Allspach awoke at 2 a.m. Thursday to find his ceiling glowing orange and his house engulfed in inhuman heat and smoke.
His girlfriend ran to the five young children sleeping upstairs, and Allspach punched 911. The call disconnected after a couple seconds, but fire trucks were on the way. By the time he called 911 a second time, the stairs were filled with fire and Allspach was on the roof of an outside porch attempting a rescue.
The dispatcher heard horror.
"Come to the back window," Allspach shouted, amid high-pitched screams from inside the burning house. "Come on! Come on!"
Within the next hour, firefighters collected the bodies of five children, ages 22 months to 7 years, and a 23-year-old mother who died futilely clutching her baby in her arms.
"Since this department started in the 1920s, we've never had one this bad. And I would doubt that 95 percent of the fire departments in the country have ever had to face a fire like this," St. Cloud Assistant Fire Chief Bill Johnston said, standing outside the charred 1930s-era white wooden house where kids so often frolicked.
"This is an incredible disaster," he said.
Sisters Daisy Goodman, 25, and Tracy McQuay, 26, learned of their four children's deaths after returning home from work as dancers at Baby Dolls adult lounge in Orlando and finding the street filled with emergency crews. McQuay tried to bolt past the firefighters into the house, but was restrained and taken to the hospital to be sedated.
"Daisy was saying this afternoon that all she could think about was how her children must have felt in there, trapped and unable to get out," recalled Vaughna Bombard, Goodman's neighbor.
Baby Dolls, the adult club where Goodman and McQuay were dancing, was closed Thursday. But dancers were summoned to a late night meeting to hear the news. They left the club, most of them in tears, declining to comment.
State fire investigators were expected to continuing sifting through the house today for clues of the cause, but authorities said their preliminary investigation found nothing suspicious and that the fire appeared accidental. It started on a front porch downstairs.
Authorities said they could find no evidence of a smoke detector in the house, although its owner insisted one had been there.
One of the few wooden houses in a well-kept working class neighborhood near downtown St. Cloud, it stood out to neighbors mainly because of the happy kids so often gathered there.
"It was always just the sounds of childhood -- just laughing and playing," neighbor Darrell Lutz said. "They were excellent parents who never left their children unattended and always seemed real comfortable with the kids."
Renting there were Melissa Back, 23, and her 22-month-old baby, Skylar, and McQuay, with 5-year-old Thomas and 6-year-old Cassidy. On Wednesday night, they were joined by Allspach, who helped his girlfriend, Back, babysit the five kids. Allspach is also the brother of Goodman and McQuay.
He was released from the hospital Thursday with bruises on his forehead and arms, and McQuay's neighbor heard he was distraught.
"Daisy said he's blaming himself for everybody's death, because he couldn't get in there to save them," Mrs. Bombard said.
The fire department's Johnston said Allspach made a "heroic effort" but the fire was too strong.
After jumping on the porch roof, Allspach broke through a window and was met with a gush of flames. He jumped off the roof after the heat became too much, then started to go in through a back door that was also spouting fire.
Sean Breese, a clerk at a nearby Citgo station who ran over with his portable fire extinguisher, grabbed Allspach by the shirt and yanked him to the street.
Firefighters recovered one of the children's bodies downstairs at the foot of the stairwell. Back, holding Skylar, and another child were found in an upstairs bedroom. Two other children were in the upstairs hallway, directly below the window Allspach had tried to beckon them to.
"They were trying to make it out, but couldn't make it. It was just too hot," said Sgt. Vincent Shepard of the St. Cloud Police Department.
By Thursday afternoon, the charred house on Maryland Avenue had sprouted a makeshift memorial. Strangers, acquaintances and friends stopped by to pray and drop off teddy bears and flowers.
Across the street, Damion Barrett recounted how well-behaved the kids were and how his own children often played with them.
"I have a 3-year-old who always liked to see the baby. It's so hard, because she keeps asking me today, "Daddy, did the baby die? Did the baby die last night?' What do you say?"
Lutz, whose own house's siding warped in the heat, said he watched six bodies come out of the house Thursday and will never get the image out of his mind, especially seeing the two mothers drive up and discover what happened.
"They were great parents, hard-working single mothers, and now they have to face this," he said.
Goodman lives about a mile away from the house that burned. Bombard said she rarely saw the children unattended, but several months ago she called state child protection workers because Goodman's children were frequently playing with propane tanks.
Goodman has faced tragedy before.
In 1997, her 3-month-old boy, Gary, died at an unlicensed day care center, according to the Orlando Sentinel at the time.
Deputies told the newspaper in 1997 that the homeowner and an assistant were caring for Gary and 10 other children, all between the ages of 3 months and 3 years. The owner told authorities she did not have a state license for the business.
Autopsy and toxicology reports showed Gary died of natural causes, possibly from sudden infant death syndrome.
"The only piece of child-care equipment they had was a 4-foot by 4-foot play yard inside the home," said Carole Garcia, a spokeswoman for the sheriff's department.
-- Times researchers Cathy Wos and Caryn Baird and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire