UPDATE: Victim identified in NE Wichita fatal house fire

By: Jason Tarr Email
By: Jason Tarr Email
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WICHITA, Kan. -- Investigators have released new information concerning a fatal fire that happened Sunday in northeast Wichita.

The fire broke out Sunday morning in the 1500 block of North Erie.

Investigators say the fire started in a back bedroom of the home, and they believe it was possibly the result of a space heater and extension cord.

"Extension cords are routinely a problem," Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said. "Those kinds of appliances, space heaters and things like that, are not really designed to be plugged into extension cords. Extension cords can get overloaded really quickly."

The investigators' findings match up with what the son told neighbors minutes after escaping the fire.

"He told me that the dad was trying to warm something up on a space heater and it turned into a fire," neighbor James Bonner said Saturday morning.

Elijah Smith, 83, and his 52-year-old son tried to put the fire out themselves before calling 911. Crisp says in that time the fire grew exponentially.

"When you attempt to fight a fire and you do things like open doors and windows, that increases the size of the fire," Crisp said.

The son made it out of the home, but his father didn't. Smith's body was found in a bathroom, Crisp said. They believe he died from smoke inhalation.

There was a non-working smoke detector in the home, but fire investigators say that wasn't a factor in this case since both men were already awake when the fire started. They say the smoke detector was mounted properly and had a battery installed. They don't know what caused it to malfunction.

Crisp says Smith's death marks the 11th fire fatality in Wichita this year.

Crisp says the high number of deaths is taking its toll on the department.

"It's tough. People on the fire department take that personal," Crisp said. "Eleven is too many; one is too many. Especially in a case like this one where it appears the fire was preventable."

Previous story:

A man in his 80s has died following a house fire Sunday morning in northeast Wichita.

The man and his son were at their home in the 1500 block of N. Erie when the fire started, Capt. Stuart Bevis of the Wichita Fire Department said.

Firefighters were called around 8:45 a.m. to a report of a house fire with a person possibly trapped inside the home. The home on N. Erie is near 14th Street and Hillside. Smoke and flames were visible when crews arrived.

Neighbor James Bonner says he was woken up by his children to the commotion.

"I looked across the street and I just seen flames and I was just like, 'Oh my God,'" Bonner said.

He says he grabbed his coat and ran down the street to find the man's son standing in front of the burning home.

"That's when I went to his son and said, 'Where's your dad? Where's your dad?," Bonner said. "That's how I knew he was in the house."

The son, a man in his 50s, told Bonner and arriving fire crews that he had tried to rescue his father and that his father was likely still inside.

"There was an indication that he was trying to get him out, trying to fight the fire," Bevis said. "But the smoke got (to be) too much, he had to get low and go, go out. He couldn't get his dad out."

Crews attempted their own rescue.

"They had fire every step of the way getting into that house," Bevis said.

Sadly, not long later, they made a devastating discovery.

"They performed a fire attack and during that process, they did locate an occupant inside and determined he was already deceased," Bevis said.

Bevis did not release the man's name but confirmed the man was the father of the other man who escaped the fire.

Bonner talked to the son just minutes after the flames were put out. He says the son is not injured but he is in shock.

Bonner says the son told him his father had been trying to warm something up on a space heater when the fire started.

Bevis says he can't confirm that story because the fire is still under investigation. The cause of the fire has yet to be determined.

Early Sunday evening, Bevis told KAKE News that crews had determined a damage estimate of $60,000 to the structure of the home and $20,000 to the contents.

No matter the cause, Bonner and others in the community say the kind, older man did not deserve this.

"I just hate to hear he had to go like that," Bonner said. "I pray for him and his family."

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