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Fire Kills Seven Family Members

December 6, 1997

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ A gathering to celebrate a birthday ended in tragedy Friday when a girl, her parents, an aunt and three cousins died in a house fire.

Five other people were injured in the blaze on the city’s northeast side, the worst residential fire in the city’s history. Firefighters said batteries had been removed from two smoke detectors in the tiny, two-story house.

``The most tragic part of this fire is that a working smoke detector would have alerted them to the fire before it became fatal,″ said Domenic Cerrone, battalion chief. ``A working smoke detector would have saved them.″

The victims were upstairs when the fire started Friday morning, said Brad Humston, fire department spokesman.

One of the women was found dead downstairs near the front door. The four children and the second woman died upstairs, most likely from smoke inhalation, Humston said.

The girl’s father died Friday evening at a hospital after suffering burns over 90 percent of his body.

The victims were identified as Lydia Win-Ray, 30; Raad Kareem Al-Naiyar, whose age was unavailable; their daughter, Elaina Jessica Ray, 4; Ms. Win-Ray’s sister Tracy Gail Stewart, 32; and her children Alicia Marie Stewart, 7; Sebastian Donovan Stewart, 4; and Nicholas Michael Stewart, 3.

Al-Naiyar, died at 6:45 p.m. Friday at the University of Kansas Medical Center. A nursing supervisor said he was in his mid-30s.

Humston said never before had seven people died in a single residential fire in Kansas City.

The Stewart family was visiting the home to celebrate Ms. Win-Ray’s 30th birthday on Thursday.

Both families were upstairs when the fire broke out. It was unclear which woman died upstairs with the children.

Another family of five was in a downstairs bedroom with the door closed when the fire started.

That family was identified as Daniel and Michelle Joseph and their children, Katia, 5; Fritz, 4; and Junior, 8.

Joseph told firefighters that Al-Naiyar knocked on the door, and when he opened it, Al-Naiyar was there with his clothes ablaze. Joseph got his wife, daughter and two sons out of the house through a back door. That family was treated and released for smoke inhalation.

The closed door probably saved their lives, Humston said.

``People don’t like to close the bedroom doors at night, but doing that can keep smoke from a fire out of the room long enough to save you,″ he said. ``That’s why those people are alive.″

Humston said the fire started near a mattress just inside the front door of the house but investigators had not determined the cause.

``The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but it’s doubtful we’ll find a cause at this point,″ Humston said before it was known that Al-Naiyar had died. ``The only person who could tell us what happened can not talk. He has third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body. The others are deceased.″

When firefighters arrived, they could hear a smoke detector sound in the garage but two others inside the house were not working because the batteries had been removed.

Pat Gilchrist, a deputy fire chief, said, ``We find people get tired of them going off when there’s no fire, so they take the batteries out. This is the kind of thing that can happen when you do that.″

Humston said a neighbor called in the fire at 5:41 a.m. and the first firefighters arrived within four minutes, finding the residence heavily involved in fire.

Cindy Baker, who lives in a nearby apartment building, said she heard nothing until fire trucks arrived.

She said she did not know the people who lived in the house very well. ``I saw the kids running up and down a lot, but we didn’t really know them. I just feel really sorry for the kids.″

Firefighters were visibly upset by their inability to save the victims. Humston, who fought back tears as he spoke, said the firefighters gave their best effort.

``This has a terrible impact on firefighters who showed up thinking they were going to save someone,″ he said. ``It is especially hard when children are involved. That haunts them the most. They’ll be dreaming about this fire tonight.″

Cerrone said the house was so smoky that firefighters had to crawl along the floor and reach out with one hand to find victims.

``It’s a desperate feeling when you find a victim,″ he said. ``You do everything you can to help them. I can’t put into words what it feels like when it doesn’t work.″

Cerrone also showed reporters where a smoke detector had melted and fallen off a ceiling just above the stairway. It was one of the smoke detectors with no batteries.

``Never take the batteries out, never,″ Gilchrist said. ``If you have a problem with your smoke detector, call the fire department. Call us before this happens.″

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