Cathy Nichols stood for a while Tuesday evening in the bitter cold outside the burned shell of her rental home in east Wichita. Grief showed in her tear-streaked, red face.
Nichols, 45, her fiance and her 16-year-old daughter escaped a fire on Goebel, near Central and Webb, a little after 3 a.m. Tuesday. The 16-year-old, Mary Jo Nichols, woke up choking, saw something flickering and started screaming, Nichols said.
Nichols escaped through a window, and her fiance, 45-year-old James Wallace, and 16-year-old daughter got out through a door.
But four others – including Nichols’ 21-year-old daughter, Amanda Nichols, and Amanda’s almost 2-year-old son, Isaaca – perished, the family said Tuesday night.
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“Couldn’t get to ’em,” Nichols said, choking back tears.
Wallace said he heard Amanda Nichols call out, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” But they couldn’t reach her and her young son.
They had all planned to move to another place around the first of the year.
The family said that the other two people who died were a friend of Amanda Nichols and his 2-year-old son. Authorities investigating the fire did not release any names of the victims.
The cause remained under investigation Tuesday night, but more information could be available Wednesday, Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said.
The fire occurred at a double-wide mobile home at 644 N. Goebel. All four who died were found in a bedroom, Crisp said. Fire officials received reports that some neighbors tried to help the occupants escape by trying to break out windows.
In addition to the deaths, three other residents and a firefighter involved in the search and rescue were injured, he said. The injuries were minor, and the firefighter returned to duty.
The fire was reported at 3:14 a.m. by residents and a police officer who happened to be patrolling in the area and saw a column of smoke. Fire crews found smoke, flames and intense heat, and because of reports of people being trapped, they immediately entered the home in a search-and-rescue mode, Crisp said. The victims were quickly brought outside and pronounced dead at the scene, he said.
“They went in and did the best they could do,” he said. “Unfortunately, we have an outcome that gives us all a very heavy heart.”
The latest tragedy leaves Wichita with 10 fire deaths this year compared with five last year, Crisp said.
Reyes Ramirez, a neighbor, said he woke up to noise that he thought at first was people fighting. He looked outside and saw flames coming out of the windows of the house next door.
He heard a woman screaming and windows breaking. He called 911, and he said emergency crews arrived quickly.
Crisp said he can’t remember the last time Wichita had so many deaths in one fire. The Fire Department tends to see a spike in fires during the holidays, when people come together and the activities often involve heating and cooking. And cooking is a leading cause of fires in Wichita, Crisp said.
He said it was possible the house on Goebel had smoke alarms, but he’s not sure whether they were functioning. Investigators had conflicting information on the smoke alarms, he said.
Crisp encouraged people to make sure they have working smoke alarms in their homes, test their smoke alarms once a month and replace batteries twice a year.
If people can’t afford alarms or batteries, they can call the Fire Department at 316-268-4441 or go to the department link at www.wichita.gov, he said.
It’s also important for people to plan more than one escape route and practice the escape so that they know how to react if a fire breaks out at 2 a.m. and they are “dead asleep” and “things are crazy,” Crisp said.
Mobile homes typically have thinner walls, doors and structural wood that can fail faster in a fire and not provide as much of a heat and smoke barrier, Crisp said. Still, he said, “mobile homes can be just as safe as any other home,” especially when they have functioning smoke alarms.
Besides the Wichita Fire Department and police, other agencies that responded included the coroner’s office, state fire marshal’s office and ATF, which is a standard response when there is a fire death, Crisp said.
The fire caused an estimated $50,000 in damage to the structure and $20,000 to the contents, Crisp said.
“The emotional part of this is difficult,” he said, noting that a chaplain had been called to the fire scene to provide spiritual help to firefighters and neighbors and family members. Firefighters will be checked to make sure they have help coping with the tragedy, he said.
“This is tough to stand here and talk about,” he said.
Deanna Dotson, whose family owns and manages properties in the neighborhood – including the mobile home where the four died – said she rented out the home about four months ago.
Another fire, caused by a candle and reported late Monday night a few houses down on the same street, appears to be separate and not related, Crisp said.
That fire occurred about 11:20 p.m. at a home at 620 N. Goebel, Crisp said. It caused about $30,000 in damage to the structure and $10,000 to the contents. It appeared that a candle had been left unattended on a bedroom nightstand while two people, an adult and a child, were home. One of the two suffered minor smoke inhalation.
Amber Pinkston, sister of Amanda Nichols, who died in the fire at 644 N. Goebel, said Tuesday night: “I still can’t believe it happened.
“I want to wake up and see them coming. I don’t want to believe it.”