Electric Problems Cited at Tennessee Apartment Fire where 7 Died

August 27, 2008

Sparks occasionally flew from electrical wiring in a rental house where two adults and five children died in a fire, and the power failed often, other tenants and relatives of the deceased said.

“Everything would go out and then they’d come mess with the fuse box,” said Stanley Crawford, who lived in one of the building’s three apartments and escaped the fire. “It would work for a week or two.”

The cause of the fire on Aug. 16 remains undetermined, and though the residence has a history of electrical problems, “we’re not ruling anything out,” Ronald Brown, the city’s chief fire marshal, said Monday.

Investigators with the state fire marshal’s office are assisting with the investigation, Brown said.

“We are also using some forensic electrical engineers and other professionals,” he said.

The fire destroyed an upstairs apartment in the two-story house in which single mother Melissa Poole, 38, lived with her eight children. She died along with four of her children and a niece and nephew.

A memorial service was held for the victims Saturday, drawing more than 1,400 people to a high school auditorium in an inner-city neighborhood called Orange Mound.

The house in which the victims lived also caught fire in 2005, and city records list an “unspecified short circuit” as a contributing cause.

Frank Holland, Melissa Poole’s landlord, didn’t return several calls from The Associated Press seeking comment. But he told The Commercial Appeal newspaper he sent workmen to the residence at least three times over the past 10 months to check out electrical problems and make repairs.

No permits required for electrical work have been issued for that address in several years, the city and county code enforcement office said.

“Nobody takes out a permit to change a circuit breaker,” Holland told the newspaper. “Maybe you’re supposed to, but nobody does it.”

Crawford, who was Poole’s uncle and lived in a first-floor apartment below hers, said electrical wall outlets on both floors occasionally sent out sparks when cords were plugged in, while others were often unworkable.

“On real hot days, I’d run a cord up there so she could plug in a couple of fans or something,” he said.

Johnny Poole, 20, a cousin who lives next door, said he often helped flip electrical breakers back on in the house’s circuit box when the electricity went out.

“Sometimes you’d have to put on gloves because it would spark out,” he said.

The Memphis medical examiner says the victims died of smoke inhalation and burns. Results of lab tests are still pending for the official IDs on some victims.

Family members have identified occupants of the house at the time of the fire as Melissa Poole and her children Deon, 18, Diamond, 9, Dajanique, 7, and Da’Shun, 5, as well as a niece and a nephew, Arianna Poole, 4, and Rodney Poole, 1.

Two of Poole’s sons, 16 and 11, escaped from the burning house and two daughters, 20 and 12, were away visiting relatives.

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