See footage of a deadly blaze as neighbors describe the scene
The house in the Ozarks was still blazing, swallowed by fire with her four nephews inside, when Lindsey VanPelt sped to the scene. The boys’ mother, Tina Brazil, had called her in a panic.
Brazil was not at home when the fire began to engulf the house close to 1 a.m. Thursday, filling the night sky above the water of McCoy Branch Cove with sickly light.
Neighbor Eddie Helt, 81, said he had awakened just before 1 a.m., detected the smoke, shouted for his wife to call 911.
He rushed outside, tried to enter the house. But the intense heat beat him back from 15 feet away.
That’s when Helt saw the boys’ mother pull up to the house in her car with her boyfriend, Mike Andrews. Brazil, Helt said, went “berserk.” She knew her children — Tyler Otto, 14; Cason Otto, 8; Max Otto, 5; and Levi Otto, 4 — were inside.
“My children! My kids! My kids!” he heard her scream.
It took five firefighters, Helt said, to restrain Andrews from trying to get into the home.
“There was nothing you could do,” Helt said.
Firefighters from the Lake Ozark Fire Protection District were dispatched at 12:51 a.m. and arrived at 1 a.m. at the house at 1636 Carol Road. They were unable to enter. The rear of the entire house had collapsed.
When firefighters were finally able to enter the home they found the bodies of the four children and two pets. Autopsies on the children this week will determine the causes of death.
On Thursday evening, under a cool, clear blue sky, the two-story Lake Ozark home where VanPelt said her nephews lived a joyous life was surrounded by yellow police tape, a blackened hulk gutted by fire. The smell of charred wood soaked the air.
On Friday, VanPelt said, she would go to make funeral arrangements. Yet in the midst of her grief, at times breaking into tears, she agreed to talk about the boys because she wanted people to know who they were.
So did Brazil, who on Thursday posted a message about her children on social media.
“My babies,” Brazil wrote. “I don’t have any words to say how we are all feeling. . . .Tyler was my Tyler-man. Soccer and the biggest do-gooder heart I’ve ever seen. Cason bug was my smarty pants early talker, artist and avid reader.
“Monster Max popped off with some of the funniest things ever at the most random moments and was a crazy awesome dancer and had the biggest imagination I’ve ever seen.
“Levi was my little nugget who would say, ‘Mommy, I love you, Mommy,’ at least 50 times a day.”
“They grew up in a fun-loving family,” VanPelt said. “They always had smiles on their faces. They could turn anything into a good time. They just had hearts of gold.”
Angie Lawrence, Brazil’s sister and the boys’ aunt, said the mother is heartbroken.
“She lost everything. They were her life,” said Lawrence, who drove from her home in St. Louis to be with the family as soon as she heard the news.
“Our lives are never going to be the same without them.”
When asked if Brazil had left the boys home alone, Lawrence said, “Honestly, I just want to leave that out because I don’t want her to hear the criticism. … She has been through enough.”
Like in a majority of states, Missouri law does not stipulate how old a child must be in order to be left home alone, according to a search of state statutes.
About a dozen states do set minimum ages for children before they can be left alone. For states that have laws, minimum ages range from 8 to 14, according to the Washington Post.
Lawrence said the local fire department told the family that a preliminary investigation indicated an ember from a nearby barbecue may have started the blaze. The facade of the home is believed to have initially caught fire.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, fire officials said that because of the time of day, the fire probably went unnoticed for some period of time. Gusty winds off the lake probably contributed to its growth. No smoke detectors were found, but they could have been destroyed in the fire.
The School of the Osage posted on its Facebook page Thursday that it “is saddened today about the loss of four of our students in a house fire early this morning. Additional counseling support is available for students impacted.”
Kenneth Otto, the boys’ paternal grandfather, became emotional as he spoke about the four boys.
“You can’t replace them,” he said.
When the boys were not with their mother, they spent weekends and three weeks each summer with their father, Travis Otto, who moved in with his own father in Westphalia after the couple divorced.
Kenneth Otto said his son went fishing Thursday afternoon, unable to remain in the house following the news of his sons’ deaths.
“He said, ‘Dad, I just need to get outside,’” Kenneth Otto said, adding, “You’re just numb. There’s nothing you can say, there’s just – there’s just nothing. You can lose everything in the snap of your finger.”