Deadly Fire Investigation Could Take Weeks

A fire marshall said it could take weeks to determine what caused a fire that killed five residents at a homeless shelter.

"There were 21 potential witnesses that survived. Police are going to do an investigation to find out who was where and who saw what ... ," said Fire Marshal Dale Maberry in an interview with Sherman television station KXII-TV.

The fire happened early Monday at the shelter, which is in a converted bakery in this small Northeast Texas town.

Investigators said a roughly 25-foot-long table piled with donated clothes was being investigated as a possible starting point for the fire.

The fire started just before 3 a.m. and sent the residents inside scrambling outside into frigid, rainy conditions. Some escaped barefoot and others left shivering without having time to grab clothes or coats.

"It went fast," said Roger Riemer, 49, who has lived at the shelter since September. "There was quite a few people trying to get it out, but it didn't work. It was just getting too hot. Smoke was billowing out of there so bad. There was nothing we could do."

The names of the victims, some of them left almost unidentifiable to investigators, were not immediately released. Their bodies were sent to Dallas late Monday for autopsies and positive identification, according to Lamar County Justice of the Peace Ernie Sparks. Fire officials said it was the most deadly fire in 30 years in recent memory in Paris, a town of about 26,000 people about 100 miles northeast of Dallas.

The shelter was run by the nonprofit Seed Sowers Christians in Action. The fire didn't spread to most of the aging brick warehouse-like building, emblazoned with "Jesus Saves" from the main road, but a chunk of roof collapsed and left a gaping hole. Underneath, some Christmas garland lay atop the rubble.

Riemer and other shelter residents, huddling outside a makeshift shelter across the street, said they saw flames and felt intense heat coming off the table full of donated clothes. Maberry said the table was being investigated as a possible "area of origin."

Paris Fire Chief Ronnie Grooms said he wasn't immediately aware if the building, which did not have a sprinkler system, had been cited for code violations. With so much donated clothes and furniture in the building, Grooms said "a lot of that would be considered a fire hazard."

Grooms said arson was not suspected.

Carlton Moore, 41, said he rushed to the kitchen to fill a pan with water to throw on the fire before the smoke grew so thick he couldn't even see the pan in his hands. He then crawled out of the building.

He said he was awakened by someone yelling "Fire!" and people pounding on doors trying to rouse residents and get them out.

"The smoke got intense real quick," he said. "All I could see was smoke."

All five who died were on the second floor. There were 28 men at the 42-bed shelter -- where men stayed in 10-by-10 rooms -- when the fire broke out, said Don Walker, the shelter's founder.

"It's just really a tragedy. It's just some homeless guys that really cared about me and I cared about them," Walker said.

The shelter was among the few homeless resources in Paris, said Bradley Scott, an executive director with the Red Cross in the area. The homeless who escaped were put up in a temporary church shelter across the street; Scott said he was still looking for a longer-term solution.

"We'll find them a place," he said. "They won't be sent out on the street."

The Seed Sowers group recycles cardboard and newspapers at the site to pay for the shelter and soup kitchen, but Walker said the fire didn't spread to the area where recyclables were being sorted.

"We're just in shock over the men dying that way," said Lee Jordan, the wife of Rev. Billy Jordan, a retired preacher who serves on the group's board of directors.

Walker said that they'd had fire drills at the shelter, and Jordan said she'd never heard of any problems there.

According to the group's Web site, Seed Sowers Christians in Action relies on contributions to provide services to the homeless and low-income people. The shelter provides meals five days a week, according to the site. The group also has a smaller shelter for women and children at a different location.

On its 2007 tax filing, the group stated that the bulk of its income that year -- nearly $50,000 -- came from recycling. It also reported receiving about $41,000 in donations. The group said it recycles paper products, rags, plastic, aluminum and unused shoes.

Walker said he doesn't have insurance for the shelter and they survive on the money raised from recycling and donations.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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