Father of Lebanon fire victims tells how he learned of children's deaths
Fire investigators found no smoke detectors in the Ozarks home where five children were killed by fire last week.
"Our search of the home did not reveal any smoke detectors," Lebanon, Mo., Fire Chief Sam Schneider told The Star.
Siblings Ethan, 5; Maeanna, 2; and Benjamin Hunt, 1, were killed in their home. Also killed were their visiting first cousins: Andre, 1, and Patience Malleck, 6 months.
Andre and Patience's mother, Alee Malleck, brought the children to the home to babysit for her brother-in-law. Her brother-in-law, Kelley Hunt, is the father of the three siblings killed.
The tragedy has shaken the community of about 15,000 people. Schneider says that while the firefighters who worked the incident have all returned to work, their physical and mental health are being closely monitored.
"We are taking it one day at a time," he said, adding that the state fire marshal's office has as yet been unable to determine the cause of the fire.
Lebanon Mayor Jared Carr has pledged to donate $5,000 of city funds and to match every dollar raised by the community to fund the purchase and inspection of smoke detectors throughout the municipality.
"Everyone has their own financial challenges and challenges in life, and we don't want the inability to purchase smoke detectors to be a hindrance," said City Administrator Mike Schumacher.
Donations can be made beginning June 26 at city hall.
"It's a low-cost solution that saves lives," Schumacher said, adding that anyone, regardless of whether they own or rent a property, can seek assistance for the devices through the city.
"Our fire department will go out and check them and provide a smoke detector if needed and put it up for them," he said.
Hunt, who recalled his children's personalities and relayed the shock he was feeling by their deaths to The Star one day after the fire, said he wouldn't be ready to speak about smoke detectors until after his children are laid to rest on Thursday.
Hunt rented the mobile home, according to county records and the mother of his children, Audrianna Middlesworth.
Landlords must ensure working smoke detectors are installed when tenants move in, but maintaining the devices is the sole responsibility of tenants in Lebanon, Schumacher said.
"I’m not exactly one who’s a big supporter of landlords, but landlords can make sure it works on Monday and a week later something can go wrong and it doesn’t work," Schumacher added.
No state agency in Missouri has any statutory authority when it comes to the proper maintenance of smoke detectors in residential dwellings not licensed by state agencies, according to Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Fire Safety. Such guidelines are solely legislated and enforced at the local level.
In other states, such as Oregon, state law mandates that maintenance and testing of detectors falls on owners of dwellings. In Wisconsin, landlords must respond within five days when renters notify them of problems with detectors, such as a dead battery, according to the United States Fire Administration.
In Kansas City, landlords must provide smoke detectors while occupants must maintain them, according to city code.
Kansas Citians will consider a proposal on the August ballot that, if passed, would empower health department inspectors to respond to tenant complaints of life-threatening conditions.
Middlesworth lived in the mobile home with Hunt until the couple separated around September 2017. She said she remembers one working detector in a hallway.
"I’m not blaming Kelley (Hunt) at all. He didn’t know what was going to happen," she said. "But he should have taken the precaution to make sure the smoke detector worked and to make sure there was more than one working."
Schumacher said Lebanon city code, which adopts the International Property Maintenance Code of 2006, calls for a smoke detector in every bedroom and at least one per floor.
He added the city inspects dwellings before renters move in, and the mobile home where Hunt and his children lived passed its inspection. Owner-occupied homes are inspected every two years.
Fred Savage, the fire chief of the Conway Fire Department near Lebanon, said the most important safety device “when you live in a trailer is smoke detectors, smoke detectors, smoke detectors. ... It truly can be the difference between life and multiple deaths.”
Hunt told Middlesworth that he believed the children and Malleck were sleeping in various rooms throughout the home.
Malleck, the 20-year-old mother of Andre and Patience, remains unconscious nearly a week after she was pulled from a window of the home by firefighters and civilians.
She's undergone a skin grafting surgery and is under heavy sedation as a ventilator helps her smoke-damaged lungs to breathe. She is unaware she's lost her children.
Malleck's mother, Lori Carrillo, said that following the deaths, a friend bought new smoke detectors and learned his home did not have a sufficient number of devices.
"I am seriously considering buying everyone smoke detectors for Christmas this year," she said.