WARREN, Ohio – Fire likely caused by a charcoal grill swept through a family's home that appeared to have no smoke alarms early Thursday, killing a couple, their two children and two other children who were sleeping over after a cookout, officials said.
Firefighters arrived to flames that were shooting up to 25 feet into the air around 5 a.m. and later searched the home to find the bodies of the two adults on the first floor and all of the children dead upstairs, Warren Mayor Michael J. O'Brien said. He called the fire the worst in the history of this city, about 50 miles southeast of Cleveland.
Fire Chief Ken Nussle said it appears unattended charcoal was still smoldering around 3 a.m. in the grill, near a rear wall and abutting wooden fence.
Radiant heat from the grill most likely caused the fire, which then spread to the upper level of the home, said Shane Cartmill, a spokesman for the state fire marshal's office. Investigators found no evidence of smoke alarms inside the home, he said.
Cartmill declined to speculate on what transpired from the last known time the unattended charcoal was smoldering, about 3 a.m., until the fire was reported. It was likely the victims were sleeping at that time, Warren fire Capt. Jeff Younkins said.
The fire burned a hole in the fence through which the clamshell grill could be seen on the back deck hours later. Heat from the blaze peeled vinyl siding from a neighboring house more than 30 feet away.
The family had a backyard cookout Wednesday night with about eight to 10 people, said Deborah Ballard, who lives next door. The mayor described the father as self-employed and the mother as a homemaker, and he said the other two children were relatives enjoying a summer sleepover. The names and ages of the victims were not immediately confirmed, authorities said.
An official cause will be determined after a coroner conducts autopsies, Cartmill said.
Four firefighters suffered minor injuries, Younkins said.
The family had lived in their neat gray home with white shutters for about six years, Ballard said.
"They were the sweetest neighbors you'd ever want," Ballard said. "There was never any problems with them."
The smell of smoke woke her up and she saw flames "jumping off the roof." In a 911 call, another neighbor told a dispatcher "the whole roof's on fire."
Firefighters brought two bodies out first.
"I watched them all come out," Ballard said. "I've been crying ever since."
Erica Putro, 36, who lives across the street, said she ran outside looking for the family, hoping she could give them a place to stay.
By that time it was too late. Rescuers already had brought out some of the victims.
Most of the damage was toward the back of the house. "The back of the roof is gone and the siding is melted and falling down to the driveway," Putro said.
Neighbors said the family included a boy and a girl who were in elementary school. "They were always outside playing. It's going to be hard not to see them out there," Putro said.
The death toll could have been worse if a young neighbor hadn't changed plans to attend the sleepover, the mayor said.
Deandre Smith, 9, instead stayed elsewhere with the uncle of the two children who lived at the house, according to his mother, Lakresha Smith, who lives two doors from the burned home.
"It's horrible because it's so close to here and then knowing that your kid could have been over there," said Lakresha Smith.
The investigation into the fire was likely to take most of Thursday, Cartmill said.
Associated Press writers John Seewer in Toledo and Doug Whiteman in Columbus contributed to this report.
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