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Wichita official: Cause of fire that killed four was careless smoking

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, at 11:02 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014, at 8:08 a.m.

A Nov. 26 fire that killed four people at an east Wichita home was accidental and was caused by careless smoking or discarded smoking material, an official said Wednesday.

“All other causes have been eliminated to our satisfaction,” Wichita fire Capt. Stuart Bevis said.

Of the 10 Wichita fire deaths this year, these are the first to be related to smoking, Bevis said.

The early morning fire killed Amanda Nichols, 21; her son, Isaaca, 1 (relatives said he was nearly 2); Camaron McGowan, 27; and his son, K’dyn McGowan, 2. Three other people escaped.

An investigative team concluded that the fire originated at an upholstered chair in the living room, which was in the center of the double-wide mobile home, Bevis said. Three witnesses “put” the fire at the chair, and fire patterns confirmed that, he said.

Several occupants of the home on North Goebel, near Central and Webb, had been smoking that night in the area of the chair, he said.

Cathy Nichols, 45, one of the three who got out, said that before she escaped, she saw fire on the back of the chair and on a wall and the ceiling.

A key factor, Bevis said, was that there was no early warning because of no working smoke alarm.

He gave this account:

The ignition source smoldered for probably two to three hours before being discovered by Cathy Nichols’ 16-year-old daughter, a little after 3 a.m. When the fire was discovered, it was in an advanced state. Although there was at least one smoke alarm in the house, it was not working.

Cathy Nichols said the home had two smoke alarms and that one of them might have been tested, but she wasn’t sure. She and her family had lived there about four months and were planning to move around the first of the year, she said.

Of the three who got out, all suffered some smoke inhalation, and one had minor burns, Bevis said.

The four who died suffered significant smoke inhalation and burns, with the latter injury most likely occurring after they had been overcome. They were probably overcome by smoke “quite quickly,” Bevis said, adding that smoke affects the human body like a narcotic that hampers judgment.

The official cause of death is pending, but the preliminary finding is that it was from smoke inhalation and thermal injury, Bevis said.

The fire is a reminder that precautions need to be taken with smoking and smoking material, he said. It’s up to the smoker to make things safe, he said.

Among his advice: Using extra-deep ashtrays and keeping them clean, because a pile of cigarette butts is like a pile of newspaper feeding a fire. Smoking materials should be disposed of in a separate metal container with a lid.

Cathy Nichols said she had tried to be cautious with smoking materials. She said she plans to use an electronic smoking device because it is safer and healthier. She has managed to quit smoking before, she said.

“I couldn’t do this again,” she said of the tragedy that took her daughter’s and grandson’s lives. “I could not live through this again.”

Another factor contributing to the fire, Bevis said, was the construction of the late-1970s mobile home, which used combustible wood paneling instead of fire-resistant Sheetrock.

The four who died were found by a fire rescue team in a southwest bedroom. Two adults were on the floor, indicating they had made some effort to escape, Bevis said. One of the children was in a crib or playpen and the other on a bed.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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