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Officials: 4-year-old started fatal house fire

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ROCHELLE B. BIRKELO
May 13, 2008
— A 4-year-old Janesville boy who accidentally started the fire Saturday morning that killed his older brother and seriously injured his younger brother had started a fire in the house just three days before, investigators have learned.

The fire and police departments have ended their investigation of the fire at 327 N. Palm St. that killed 7-year-old Derek R.J. Mattingly and injured 2-year-old Joey Ashmore.


“We believe the fire was accidental in nature started by a 4-year-old resident,” said Larry Hainstock, lead inspector at the Janesville Fire Department.


“From our interview with the mother, the same child was caught playing with a lighter and started a fire near the same origin of the fire in the house three days before the fatal fire,” Hainstock said.


Deputy Chief David Moore of the police department confirmed the information.


“We were told that,” he said.


Hainstock said the 4-year-old, Owen A.P. Ashmore, started paper on fire in a shoe in the ground-floor living room the day of the fatal fire.


Investigators don’t know what he used to light the fire.


“He wouldn’t say,” Hainstock said.


Although both parents—Scott A. Ashmore, 23, and Kristarra M. Mattingly, 22—smoke, “they try to keep the lighter away from the children and smoke outside,’’ Hainstock said.


“The mother had talked to him (Owen) about problems with fire and not playing with lighters,” Hainstock said.


Saturday’s fire spread rapidly.


“After the 4-year-old alerted his dad of the (Saturday) fire, unfortunately, due to the rapid development of the smoke and heat, the father was unable to evacuate the 2- and 7-year-old boys sleeping in another bedroom of the house,” Hainstock said.


The only smoke alarm that investigators found in the house was in the basement.


Kristarra later told them she had removed a smoke alarm in the kitchen a week before the fatal fire.


“It was inadvertently sounding when she was cooking,’’ Hainstock said.


Scott Ashmore is the birth father of Joey and Owen A.P. Ashmore and has been raising Derek since he was 2. Kristarra is the birth mother of all three boys, Moore said.


The fire department is citing the building’s owner, Noe Ramos of Franklin Park, Ill., “for not providing proper smoke detection in the apartment as required by Wisconsin state statute,” Hainstock said. State statutes require a working smoke detector on each floor of a rental property.


The boys’ grandmother also said that Joey, who was flown from Mercy Hospital to a Milwaukee hospital for treatment, “has taken a turn for the better in the last 24 hours,” Hainstock said.


Stress debriefings calm emergency responders

Any death is traumatic.


But when “it’s little kids, it’s a lot tougher,’’ said Janesville firefighter Ron Sagen, who was among more than two-dozen people attending Monday’s stress debriefing at Janesville Fire Station No. 1 after Saturday’s fatal fire.


Police, fire, hospital workers and 911 dispatchers involved with the fire were invited.


The two-hour debriefing was led by the Rev. Bill Wagner of Beloit, who is in charge of critical incident stress debriefing in southeastern Wisconsin.


Sagen said the debriefing is confidential.


“We’re not looking to place blame or responsibility, it’s just an opportunity to get together and talk through the situation,’’ he said.


For Sagen, the debriefing was an opportunity to hear what others are experiencing.


“So instead of just bringing my piece of the puzzle, it brings it all together so I have a better understanding of and hopefully set it to rest with myself.”


The debriefings help keep everybody safe and add longevity to their careers, he said.


“This stuff has a tendency to come back at you five or 10 years later when you don’t know why you’re having troubles. If we address it right now and get it out and talk about it, we can head of some of this stuff off,’’ Sagen said.


Larry Hainstock, lead fire inspector, agreed.


“As we all get older, you know the life expectancy is not forever. So when you see someone so young pass away, it just makes it that much more tragic because you know they have a full life ahead of them.’’


To help

The American Red Cross is providing the Mattingly-Ashmore family with food for a week, clothing and a hotel stay near the Milwaukee hospital where their 2-year-old is being treated, said Brenda Parker, emergency services manager for the South Central Wisconsin chapter.


An account has been set up at Janesville’s two Anchor banks to help the family with expenses. The banks are located at 100 W. Racine St. and 2215 Holiday Drive.


Donors may drop off cash at either location or mail checks, payable to the Mattingly-Ashmore Family Benefit Fund, to P.O. Box 8070, Janesville, WI 53547.



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