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Official: Short in extension cord started fire that killed toddler

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, August 29, 2013, at 12:31 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Sep. 10, 2013, at 2:37 p.m.

Little Austyn Scott was a happy boy.

“He had the bluest eyes,” gushed Heather Fisher, his babysitter, of the 18-month old.

He was speaking a few words, his aunt, Amber Scott, said.

Hat. Dad. Mama. I love you. Hi.

And “Bye.”

“He always smiled and loved to give kisses. He was the best child you could ever see or could imagine,” Scott said. “And we’re always going to be grieving over him.”

Austyn was killed in a fire late Wednesday as he slept on the couch in the living room of the small house he lived in with other family members in southwest Wichita.

Fire investigators say the fire was ignited by a short in an extension cord running beneath the couch. The cord was at one end of the couch, and Austyn was sleeping on the other end.

If there was a smoke alarm in the tiny house at the back of the lot at 1823 S. Everett, it wasn’t working, Capt. Stuart Bevis said. Family members told The Eagle there was no smoke detector in the house.

Asleep in her back bedroom, Scott, 25, said she woke to smoke and flames. She tried to rescue her nephew from the couch, burning her hands and face in the process. But the flames were already so intense she couldn’t get to him.

She said she got her young daughters, ages 2 and 8 months, from her bedroom and escaped, running to her neighbors’ at the front of the lot and pounding desperately on the door, screaming at them to call 911.

It was about midnight and Chaz Charbonneau said he was about to fall asleep when Scott began pounding on the door. He knew something was going on.

“Something bad,” Charbonneau said. “She about knocked our damn door off” its hinges.

He went around the corner and saw the house “engulfed in flames,” as he put it.

One neighbor tried to get in a side door in hopes of rescuing Austyn, but the smoke was just too thick. Charbonneau’s girlfriend, Amber Courtois, doused a shirt in water and tried to use it as a shield so she could run in and get Austyn.

But she didn’t get near the door. The flames and heat were too intense.

Firefighters arrived within a few minutes. They were alerted en route that a small child was still in the house, Bevis said, but a rescue team did not find him when they went to the bedroom where he was thought to be.

Once the fire had been knocked down considerably, another rescue attempt was made and Austyn was found on the couch in the living room.

He was “already obviously deceased,” Bevis said. An autopsy confirmed the toddler died of smoke inhalation and burns, he said.

Scott and her two young children were taken to the burn unit of Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis for treatment. By Thursday afternoon, they were back at what was left of their home.

A window air conditioner’s cord had been spliced so it could be plugged into a power strip, Bevis said. The 25-foot extension cord was plugged into the power strip at one end and the wall outlet at the other, he said.

Only about 10 feet of the cord was being used, with the rest coiled up. That coiling can create a fire hazard, Bevis said, particularly if the cord is carrying a heavier electrical load than it is designed to handle.

The cord was also pinched by the couch, which Bevis said could also have contributed to the malfunction, he said.

“You don’t splice cords,” Bevis said. That can create “a point for it to fail.”

The old air conditioner had been given to the family with the cord spliced so it could be plugged into a common outlet, Bevis said.

They had had that air conditioner for only a month or two, Charbonneau said.

This is the fourth fire death of 2013 in Wichita. The two most recent victims have been children.

A 6-year-old girl died July 14 from burns she suffered three days before after her clothes caught on fire while she was playing with a lighter in southeast Wichita.

Christopher Scott, Austyn’s father, had gone out for the evening. He and his son had lived with Amber Scott and her family for about a month, a family member said.

“They came home to this,” Courtois said of the fire.

Shortly before 2 a.m. Thursday, Christopher Scott’s anguished cries spilled over the hum of fire trucks. When he rushed toward the home, police blocked his path.

“No! No! No! My son is in there!” Christopher Scott cried. “My ... son is in there!”

Later he knelt and rocked back and forth in the driveway.

Damage was estimated at $50,000 to the structure and $10,000 to its contents. Family members said Thursday they were unsure how they would pay for Austyn’s funeral and other expenses now that they are displaced from their home.

“It’s basically a total loss,” Bevis said.

Amber Scott fought back tears at times as she described her attempts to save Austyn. Her face and right hand, in particular, bore burns reflecting what she had been through.

For all intents and purposes, she said, Austyn “was my son.”

“We love him, and he’s always going to be in our hearts.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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