September 20, 2011

Intense heat, not flames, burned teen, Wichita fire official says

WICHITA — Flames never reached the bathroom where firefighters found a teenage girl in a burning home early Sunday morning, a fire official said Tuesday, but she was so badly burned by the intense heat she was unable to survive.

Rain was pouring down early on Sunday morning, and Rebecca Wood knew her son was at a girlfriend's house just down the street.

She called and offered to come get him so he wouldn't get wet on the short walk home. When he told her his friend wanted a cake pan so she could bake something for church that morning, she offered to take them to the nearest QuikTrip.

Wood's daughter, Lindsay "Lu" Ford, was fast asleep in her bedroom upstairs, and Wood figured she would be home in a few minutes anyway.

But wailing fire trucks flew by on Dodge as she was leaving the QuikTrip at Seneca and Douglas shortly before 6:30 a.m., and she wondered whose house was on fire.

"We got home, and it was my house," Wood said Tuesday afternoon. "I got out and was yelling, 'My daughter's in there! My daughter's in there!' "

Firefighters used ladders to climb onto the roof and through windows to search for Lindsay, who was found in the bathroom next to her bedroom, at the head of the stairs. She was not breathing.

She was rushed to the burn unit of Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, where she was revived but never regained consciousness. She was pronounced dead Sunday night, authorities said.

"I wasn't gone 20 minutes," Wood said. "One of the things I'd like to know is what the hell happened.

"It all happened so fast."

While the exact cause of the fire is still being confirmed, fire Capt. Stuart Bevis said the fire started in Wood's bedroom on the ground floor of the rental house at 420 N. Dodge.

The family of four had only lived in the house for a couple of months, Wood said.

The fire appears to be accidental, Bevis said, but officials have not released the cause.

Investigators are nailing down the "initiation sequence" of how the fire started and spread, Bevis said. There was a lot of combustible material in the room — including a mattress — that allowed the fire to build and temperatures to escalate rapidly.

When the temperature of the air near the ceiling reached 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, a "flashover" — in which the entire room catches fire at once — took place, Bevis said.

"When a fire goes from bad to worse, that's when flashover occurs," Bevis said.

A flashover pushes heat and toxic gases throughout the structure that's burning. It can happen rapidly.

"Flashover can occur in a small room in less than a minute," Bevis said.

That's why fire officials strive to keep response times to a handful of minutes — so firefighters can get to a fire before it flashes over, he said.

And it's why working smoke alarms are so important, he said. They can alert residents to a fire before it has grown so big or lethal that there's no time to escape.

The only smoke alarm in the house did not have batteries in it, Bevis said.

"People complain, 'It goes off when I burn toast,' " he said. "If you have that smoke alarm outside your bedroom, it's telling you when something really small is going on.

"Typically, a fire has to get really big to get to super toxic levels of carbon monoxide," he said. "If you get that early warning, you're able to get out before it gets that big."

A man who lives behind the house at 420 N. Dodge spotted the fire at about 6:15 a.m. Sunday, but because he doesn't have a phone he was yelling and pounding on doors pleading with neighbors to call 911.

Lindsay likely awakened to thick smoke and made her way from her bedroom to the bathroom, Bevis said.

She may have been trying to save herself by soaking herself in water, her mother said.

"People feel you have to be in a room where the fire is at for it to really affect you," Bevis said.

But that's not true — particularly when a flashover occurs.

A stairway can act like a chimney during a house fire, conducting heat and toxic gases into upper levels, Bevis said. Heat from Sunday's fire vented directly into the bathroom where Lindsay sought refuge.

"In this tragedy, the victim was in a room where we never had open flame, but unfortunately was in the direct path of the convected heat," Bevis said.

She was burned over 86 percent of her body and also suffered smoke inhalation. She is the sixth fire fatality of the year in Wichita.

Lindsay's viable organs were donated.

"That way, she still lives through other people," her mother said.

Lindsay was working toward her GED at Kansel, and wanted to be a nurse or a teacher someday.

"She liked little kids," Wood said of her daughter. "She wanted to be a model, but all young girls do."

She doted on the family's two pit bulls, Lucy and Buddy, who slept in her bedroom and died in the fire.

Born in Colorado, she loved winter sports — particularly skiing and snow boarding. She also enjoyed riding four-wheelers and her stepfather's Harley Davidson motorcycle.

"Lindsay was one of the most beautiful — inside and out — kids of her age I've ever seen," said Roberta Wood, her step-grandmother. "She pulled herself up by her own bootstraps. She made things happen for her because she was that strong."

About all the family has left in the aftermath of the fire is what Lindsay's stepfather had in his travel bag for an out-of-town business trip, said Benjamin Henry, his boss.

"It's a good family," Henry said. "He's a hard worker. They didn't have much, but what they had they were proud of."

Lindsay's funeral will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Affinity All Faiths Mortuary, 2850 S. Seneca.

A memorial in her name has been set up at the Bank of America branch at 500 S. West Street to pay for funeral expenses.

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