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Woman, Six Children, Killed in Foster Home Fire

January 8, 1990

CLAYTON, Ala. (AP) _ A family ″just trying to help people″ began regrouping today from a fire that raced through their eight-bedroom house, killing six foster children and an elderly houseguest who had been homeless.

The owners of the house, Robert and Lois Mitchell, escaped unhurt from early Sunday’s fire, said Barbour County Coroner David Childs.

The Mitchells were able to escape with their three children and two other foster children.

The Mitchells’ daughter, Michelle, who helped her brothers rescue the two children but failed to reach the others, said her mother was extremely upset.

″All she can say is, ’My babies are gone,‴ the daughter said.

The fire destroyed their large one-story house in rural east Alabama

The cause of the fire was under investigation, said state Fire Marshal John Robison.

Two girls and four boys were among the victims. Childs identified them as Kimberly Gilbert, 8; her 10-year-old brother, Jessie; Kimberly Walker, 5; and her brothers Larry, 10, Jessie, 7, and Marketta, 4.

Also killed was Florene Burgess, 66. The Mitchells had taken the homeless woman in ″out of the goodness of their hearts″ at the request of a judge, Childs said.

″This is a case of folks who were just trying to help people,″ Childs said. ″There is no indication of foul play. She took all the children to church on Sunday and kept them in good shape and all.″

The children who died had been assigned there by the state Department of Human Resources, Childs said.

″This is the worst tragedy I’ve ever seen,″ said Childs, who has been coroner for three years. ″This is the most (deaths) we have ever had in a house fire in Barbour County.″

The coroner said Mrs. Mitchell told him she thought the fire started near the hot water heater, adding that the home itself was not being heated.

Michelle Mitchell, 23, said she was able to wake her brothers, Eric, 23, and Michael, 21. The three rescued Kevin Boyer, 2, and Brenda Gilbert, 12 but couldn’t get to the others.

″These children will always be in our memories. We loved them like our own flesh and blood. We will miss them dearly,″ Miss Mitchell said in tears.

Mike Gibson, a spokesman for the state Department of Human Resources, said he understood the house had smoke detectors. All private foster homes in the state are inspected before they are certified, he said.

The Mitchells were licensed to care for the large number of children at their home, one of 4,000 license private foster homes in Alabama, said county District Attorney Sam LeMaistre Jr.

″I think the fact that you see so many children in homes is an indication that we’ve got a shortage of foster homes not only in Barbour County but in the state and across the nation,″ LeMaistre said. ″Funds are limited for foster care.″

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