Lawrence fire and police officials today hunted for clues in an arson fire that trapped six people in a second-floor apartment and killed a teen-ager who died after passing her two nieces out a window to safety.
"We feel very strongly it was an arson fire," said Fire Marshal Rich Barr, coordinator of the Douglas County Fire Investigation Squad.
Barr declined to elaborate on the exact cause of the fire, which was reported early Sunday morning. No suspects have been arrested nor has a motive been established, he said.
LaTonya Farmer, 17, who lived with relatives in the four-unit building at 714 W. 25th, was pronounced dead at Lawrence Memorial Hospital early Sunday. She was Lawrence's fourth fire fatality in a week.
Three of the four people injured in the fire remained hospitalized today.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigation will conduct tests on materials recovered at the scene to determine how the fire began, Barr said.
The blaze was reported about 2:44 a.m. Sunday. More than 20 firefighters battled the fire, which was brought under control within 15 minutes.
Barr said the fire was set intentionally in a vacant apartment on the east side of the first floor. The apartment where the victims were found is on the west side of the second floor.
A NEIGHBOR, Stanley Penny, 713 W. 25th, said he was told that police found an empty gasoline can in the vacant apartment. Barr wouldn't comment on that report.
Another neighbor, Tim Cable, who also did maintenance work at the apartment complex, said the vacant apartment where the fire began was unlocked and occasionally inhabited by vagrants.
Barr said investigators followed up 15 leads Sunday and would check into reports that the vacant apartment was used for crack parties.
"I've never had any report of drug use in vacant apartments, but I think we've had some problem tenants in the past noise, that type of thing," said Conrad Miller Jr. of Leawood, the owner of the apartment complex since 1989.
"It's a tragedy. It's very upsetting any time when someone loses a life. It's a terrible thing," he said.
Four local agencies were investigating Sunday's fire, including four Lawrence police officers, three Lawrence fire department investigators, two Douglas County sheriff's deputies and two KU police officers.
Anyone with information about the fire can call investigators at 841-0007, extension 171. Anonymous tips can be telephoned to 1-800-KS-CRIME.
Lawrence Fire Chief Jim McSwain said damage to the other two apartments was minimal.
MCSWAIN said firefighters theorized that someone among the group trapped in the apartment tried to flee down a front stairway which opened to the front door of all the apartments. Flames and heavy smoke forced the person to retreat.
That person probably left the front door of the apartment open, he said. Heat and smoke filled their apartment after someone opened a window to save the nieces. The open window likely created a draft that sucked smoke into the apartment through the front door, he said.
"They retreated to the back, and they opened the window to pass the two small children out," the chief said. "That set up a draft that brought the fire up the stairs."
Flames never reached the apartment where Farmer and five others were trapped.
LaTonya Farmer's nieces, identified as Dejanelle Lockette, 2, and Tiffany Lockette, 4, were passed through a rear window to neighbors on the ground before firefighters arrived. The girls were treated at LMH and released.
After a heroic effort to save her relatives, LaTonya Farmer collapsed from smoke inhalation. She was carried from the scene by firefighters and was pronounced dead at LMH.
McSwain said victims found inside the apartment were huddled beneath a window at the rear of the apartment, a site as far away from the fire as they could get.
OTHER SURVIVORS identified as LaTonya's mother, Ella Farmer, 43; her niece, Monechia Fisher, 7, and LaTonya's friend, Brandy Martin, 13, were in Kansas City area hospitals today. Officials believe all the victims, except Brandy Martin of Lawrence, were living in the apartment.
Ella Farmer was in serious condition and Monechia Fisher was in fair condition at Kansas University Medical Center. Martin was in critical condition at Children's Mercy Hospital.
A neighbor who helped save the girls, John Burroughs, 28, was treated for smoke inhalation and released Sunday from LMH.
Barr said that when firefighters arrived there were no smoke detectors sounding in the apartments.
Shirley Laster, a neighbor who took care of the two nieces Sunday night, said the 4-year-old niece, Tiffany Lockette, said she didn't hear a smoke alarm.
"We asked her if any alarm went off inside. She said no. It would have helped if something had gone off," Laster said.
Sunday's death pushed the number of fire fatalities in Lawrence this year to four.
On Jan. 11, a woman and her two sons died in a fire in their mobile home at Gaslight Village trailer park, 1900 W. 31st.
Police said the woman, Young S. Puckett, 32, set the fire that killed her and her sons, Justin Y. Puckett, 10, and Kris M. Puckett, 6.
Authorities said Young Puckett was upset about marital problems.