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Candles, Tree Blamed for Ohio House Fire

December 24, 2003

CANTON, Ohio (AP) _ A house fire that killed seven people started when candles ignited a Christmas tree that some of the victims had decorated hours earlier, fire investigators said Wednesday.

The fire was accidental, and the tree had fallen over earlier in the night, fire inspector Jack Phifer said.

``There was no obvious sign of any foul play,″ he said.

The fire killed three adults and four children.

Lisa Rowley, the mother of two girls who died in the fire, said outside the house Wednesday that candles were burning about four feet from the fresh-cut tree.

A group of friends and family decorated the tree Monday evening when it fell over the first time, tipping away from the candles, said Rowley, who was out for drinks with her boyfriend when the fire started.

``We just put it up, and it fell down,″ she said. ``We picked it back up and decorated it again.″

Baby dolls, strollers and Polly Pocket figurines were wrapped and hidden for Cally and Leigha Gross, their mother said. Four-year-old Cally could hardly wait.

``They were so excited. She kept saying, ‘Where’s my presents?’ I had it all for them in the basement _ everything was there,″ said Rowley, dissolving into tears.

Fire inspectors said they think the occupants may have tried to put the fire out themselves before calling for help.

Inspectors believe the fire started about 3:30 a.m. but the first emergency call didn’t come until 4:06 a.m. Firefighters arrived at 4:12 a.m.

Survivors told inspectors that some occupants had been drinking during the evening. Inspectors say the drinking likely hurt people’s ability to react to the fire.

``Neighbors were so used to partying and yelling they wouldn’t even look out the windows,″ said fire inspector Nanette DeLong.

She described a state of panic that quickly set in.

``Anything that could go wrong, did. The whole situation of the candles and the tree up to the situation where they didn’t call us right away,″ she said. ``Nobody did anything right. They didn’t call right away and we think alcohol played a part.″

Rowley called 911 from a neighbor’s home when she arrived to find the house burning.

``They are on the second floor. I tried to get there myself but I couldn’t breathe,″ she said in the call. ``Oh, my little girls ... Oh my God, no.″

One victim, Donald Knight, 43, died when he ran back in the house to try to save others. Neighbors also tried to help, including a man who used a garden hose to spray the flames and another man who tried to go inside but was forced out by flames, residents said.

Two adults and a child pulled from the first floor died at the house, Battalion Chief Raymond Harple said. The other victims were pronounced dead at hospitals.

Other victims were 9-year-old Jerry Knight, Rowley’s half-brother and Donald Knight’s nephew; 34-year-old Dale Gross, Rowley’s ex-husband; and Nicole Cavanaugh, 21, and her 7-week-old daughter, Katlin.

Canton is 50 miles south of Cleveland.

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