Public Safety

Two children die in Waterloo house fire

Firefighters stand outside the Waterloo home where an early Thursday morning fire killed two children and critically injured their mother. Passersby noticed smoke and called the waterloo FIre Department shortly after 4 a.m. The children who died were 6 and 9 years old. (Jeff Reinitz/Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)
Firefighters stand outside the Waterloo home where an early Thursday morning fire killed two children and critically injured their mother. Passersby noticed smoke and called the waterloo FIre Department shortly after 4 a.m. The children who died were 6 and 9 years old. (Jeff Reinitz/Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)
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WATERLOO — Fire officials are searching for answers after a Thursday morning fire claimed the lives of two children and sent a woman to the hospital. A third child escaped the burning home.

Firefighters pulled the three from a burning and smoke-filled house at 1815 Commercial St. after a passerby spotted smoke.

Amari Burkett, 9, and Ava Everman, 6, were pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Their mother was taken to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City and was in critical condition as of Thursday afternoon.

The third child, a girl, survived after crawling through her bedroom window to escape.

A number of dogs and a cat perished in the fire. Officials said more than a dozen pets were in the home.

Rachel Walker and Melvin Lancaster were driving across the 18th Street bridge shortly after 4 a.m. when they noticed heavy smoke, and they followed the smoke to the house where they discovered a young girl outside the burning home.

“We were just crossing the bridge, and we saw a cloud of smoke. We turned and, sure enough, the house was on fire, and she was outside with the dog,” said Walker, of Cedar Falls, who knows the family.

“She was standing out here hollering ‘help.’ She said little kids and an adult (were) upstairs, and her dad wasn’t home,” said Lancaster, who lives nearby.

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Another passerby in a semi trailer truck also stopped. They sheltered the girl in the car and called 911.

They helped a police officer kick in a door and found a garden hose attached to the home.

“We stuck a hose in the side window to try and help, but it wasn’t going to do anything,” Walker said, who also knows the family.

The first fire engine was on the scene in four minutes, Waterloo Fire Chief Pat Treloar said.

He said it was fortunate the city’s three front-line ambulances were available and not tied up on other calls.

Firefighters worked in zero visibility to pull the woman and one child out through an upstairs window and carry the other child down the stairs while extinguishing the flames.

Firefighters put out the fire quickly.

There was heavy fire and smoke damage on the home’s ground floor, and heavy smoke damage to the upstairs. The cause of the fire hasn’t been determined and is under investigation by the city fire marshal.

The father — who was at work, according to a neighbor — arrived at the home while firefighters were working the blaze.

Inside the home, firefighters found five dogs and a cat that had died.

Another six dogs and three puppies were in the basement and survived, as did a rabbit in a ground floor bedroom, according to Waterloo Animal Control workers. Animal Control took custody the animals pending further investigation.

The child who escaped on her own was fortunate because the door to her bedroom was closed, according to firefighters.

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“At her bedroom, the door was shut, and there’s no smoke in that room whatsoever,” Treloar said.

It wasn’t clear if the house had working smoke alarms. Firefighters said they didn’t hear any when they arrived, and crews found a spot where one had melted off the wall during the blaze, Treloar said.

The home is owned by CLB Development and PUB Properties of Jesup, according to county property records.

For people in the neighborhood, the deaths came as a shock.

“It’s very sad. I’m kind of heartbroken over the whole thing ... They were sweet little kids, and they had a lot of cute puppies, too,” said Nathan Herrmann, who operates an auto repair shop next door and recalls seeing the children playing outside. “We’ve actually worked on their cars. They are really good people.”

One the other side of the home, Nicole Kinkade said her own children were about the same age and were good friends with the neighbors.

“It’s kind of a touchy moment right now,” Kinkade said. “They were always running around the neighborhood, and all the kids around here played with them.

“In the summer, they were all out there on the trampoline and shooting hoops in their backyard,” she said. “Between our yard and their yard, it was the neighborhood hangout. It will be a rough summer. We got used to having them around.”

Firefighters and dispatchers involved in the call will have a debriefing in coming days, Treloar said. The meeting will include an operational review of what happened.

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“And then we will go around the room and talk about things that people are feeling and try to identify if anybody is struggling with the deaths,” Treloar said. “If we identify enough of our people who are struggling, we will bring someone in from the outside, a critical stress management team.”

The department holds such meetings after major calls, although this one hits harder because children were involved, Treloar said.

The department’s chaplain, Rev. Larry McKinney, also will be available, he said.

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