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Trial opens for man accused of deadly hotel fire

Jury selection is to begin Monday for Eric Preston Hans, who is charged with one federal count of arson resulting in death in an early morning hotel blaze in Greenville, S.C. in 2004 that killed six people.
Hotel Fire Trial
Eric Hans faces a federal arson charge for a fire at a Greenville, S.C. hotel in 2004.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Brenda Brazell still remembers waking to the screams of "Help! My baby!" and then desperately searching a smoke-filled hotel hallway for her son and granddaughter, who were staying a few rooms away.

Brazell's family survived, but the crying woman and her baby boy were among the six guests who died in the early morning hotel blaze in Greenville in 2004.

Jury selection is to begin Monday for Eric Preston Hans, who is charged with one federal count of arson resulting in death.

"If he's guilty, he needs to fry. That baby is what upset me so bad," said Brazell, 60. "We're all hurting, but that poor baby didn't have a chance in the world."

The trial is likely to run into August. If Hans is found guilty, the same jury would hear more testimony to determine whether he should die.

Hans, 37, has maintained his innocence since he was first questioned Jan. 25, 2004, the day after the fire, according to statements given to police.

"I didn't start the fire. I know in my heart I didn't start the fire," Hans told authorities, according to pretrial testimony from Greenville County sheriff's investigator Wes Smith.

On the night of the fire at the Comfort Inn, Brazell and her then-teenage daughter were in a room across the hall from Melba Leshawn Canty, 21, and her 15-month-old son, Jaden.

Around 4 a.m., Canty ran into the hall begging for help because she couldn't find her boy in the smoke.

Vicious motives, prosecutors say
Prosecutors accuse Hans of starting the fire on the third floor near the rear stairwell to kill Canty. Brazell says investigators told her that Hans had a feud with Canty's boyfriend, Zachary Cromer, who was in the room with Canty and the baby.

Cromer escaped by breaking a window and jumping several feet to an overhang, suffering serious injuries. Ten more guests also were injured and many of the other 46 registered guests rushed into the freezing rain in pajamas. Some shattered windows and waited for firefighters or climbed down bed sheets.

Hans called Canty a true friend and said her death was the worst thing that had ever happened to him, sheriff's Lt. Thomas Seigler has testified.

Hans, jailed awaiting trial, refused an interview request from The Associated Press.

When he was indicted in November 2005, Hans was in state prison serving two years for receiving stolen goods. He also spent time behind bars for hiding in a convenience store until it closed and trying to break into a video poker machine with a saw, according to court records.

Brazell is on the prosecution's witness list and plans to watch at least some of the trial. She said she had a stroke that doctors think was caused by stress of the fire.

Her daughter, now 21, still has difficulty breathing. Her 10-year-old granddaughter had to see a psychiatrist for a year after the fire and still gets upset when someone talks about the blaze, Brazell said.

The family had gone to Greenville from their home in Burnsville, N.C., 2 1/2 hours away, to watch a monster truck show.

"We just went down there for one night to have some fun," Brazell said. "It's sad that someone is that mad enough to kill and injure that many people over a woman."