Erie day care fire that killed firefighter's kids lacked thorough inspection, official says

The call to properly inspect home day care facilities in the city comes as community members confront the loss of five young children, including four siblings.

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By Kathy Park, Emily Berk and Erik Ortiz

ERIE, Pa. — One day after an early-morning blaze ripped through a home day care in this lakeside city, a fire official on Monday blamed a "loophole" in the inspection process for failing to prevent the tragedy, which claimed the lives of five young children, including three whose father was a firefighter.

Luther Jones, a volunteer firefighter, had been responding to a separate call early Sunday about a fire alarm while members of the Erie Fire Department battled the fire raging at the Harris Family Daycare, a 24-hour operation. He said he didn't know that fire involved his own children, and was unaware the home day care had only one smoke detector.

"That kills me the most," he said, adding that if the home had more, there might have been a better chance for everyone inside to escape and "my kids would be here today."

Luther Jones with his children, Ava, 4, La'Myhia, 8, and Luther Jr., 6.Courtesy Luther Jones

Erie Fire Chief Guy Santone said he has asked for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to turn over the addresses of all home day cares operating in the city so they can be inspected for smoke detectors and fire extinguishers on an annual basis.

The Harris Family Daycare was licensed to care for six children at a time, Santone said, and was only required to be inspected by the state and not local fire inspectors. State inspectors check issues of cleanliness and staff training, he added, and don't evaluate smoke detectors or the home's wiring as a fire inspector would.

"There's a loophole there for some reason, and we're going to close this up today," Santone said.

The Department of Human Services did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Overloaded extension cords are being eyed as the likely cause of the fire, which broke out shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday. A single smoke detector was found in the attic of the two-story home, fire officials said.

The deaths may have been avoided "if there were the proper amount of smoke detectors," Santone said, adding, "It only takes five minutes for a whole house to go up."

A fire at a daycare in Erie, Pa., killed five children on Aug. 11, 2019.Danika Scott

Child day care facilities located in private homes are generally expected to have a smoke detector on each floor and the basement, according to state codes. Santone said every bedroom should have a smoke detector as well.

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The home used by the Harris Family Daycare had five bedrooms, property records show.

The children — ranging from about 8 months old to 8 years old — were sleeping in the upstairs of the home, Santone said. Four of the five killed were siblings, the older three of whom were the children of Jones, a firefighter with the Lawrence Park Volunteer Fire Department in neighboring Lawrence Park Township.

They were identified as Jaydan, about 8 months, Ava, 4, Luther Jr., 6, and La'Myhia, 8.

Shevona Overton, the mother of the four siblings, had been working the overnight shift as a certified nursing assistant, friends said. The fifth child was not immediately identified.

"My babies, they're gone," Overton said. "Me being a mom, and everything I knew was about my kids — they're not here. I don't know what to do."

On Monday, a makeshift memorial outside of the day care continued to grow with stuffed animals and balloons.

Paul Laughlin leaves stuffed animals outside the scene of a house fire that left multiple people dead in Erie, Pa., on Aug. 11, 2019.Greg Wohlford / Erie Times-News via AP

Fire officials said two older children, ages 12 and 17, who were at the home during the blaze, climbed out of a second-floor window and jumped down to safety. The 17-year-old is believed to be the son of day care operator and the home's owner, Elaine Harris, officials added.

Harris escaped the flames through the front door, and suffered smoke inhalation, Santone said. She tried to take herself to the hospital, but got into a car accident and had to be transported by medical helicopter. Her condition was not released Monday.

State records show the last major inspection of the day care occurred in December, and it received a certificate of compliance through March 2020.

The inspection noted that covers must be placed over electrical outlets and that ashes and cigarette butts are prohibited in child care spaces, play areas and where food is prepared.

"I will make sure it will be cleaned up and remain that way," the day care wrote in its response.

In an interview with NBC affiliate WICU last year, Harris described how her teenage son would help her watch the younger children. She would take the children to doctor's appointments and church on Sunday. Their presence playing outside was a common fixture of the neighborhood.

"This is what I was meant to do. This is why I am here," Harris said at the time.

Neighbor Danika Scott, who watched helplessly early Sunday as smoke and fire filled the home, said the people who were able to flee appeared shell-shocked and unsure of what to do.

"By the time the kids jumped, it was just engulfed on the top of the roof," Scott said.

Curtis Jones Jr., an Erie councilman who is not related to Luther Jones, said there are "multiple" 24-hour day cares in the area that serve parents who are working third shifts. He said he had never heard of any issues involving Harris.

Luther Jones, he added, was his friend, and he had last seen him on Saturday morning at the convenience store where he works. Curtis Jones said Luther Jones had recently married in June, and was focused on caring for his new bride and children.

"One time I told him, 'You're always working,'" Curtis Jones said. "He said, 'Yeah, you got to do what you got to do. I have kids.' He's just a great guy and all about his kids."

Luther Jones' son, Luther Jr., who died in the fire, wanted to be a firefighter just like his father. The elder Jones said he's motivated to keep going for his children, who brought smiles to everyone's faces.

"I hear their voices in the back of my head," Jones said. "They're saying, 'Keep doing what you’re doing, dad.'"

Kathy Park and Emily Berk reported from Erie, and Erik Ortiz from New York.