Five die, including baby, in Rhode Island house fire

February 7, 2010 6:40:10 AM PST
A house fire that officials said might have simmered undetected for hours Saturday killed five people, including a mother and her 7-month-old baby, in one of Rhode Island's deadliest blazes since a 2003 fire at a crowded nightclub killed 100 people. Firefighters found the victims unconscious and severely burned on the second floor of a single-family house in a residential neighborhood, Warwick Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan said. They were called to the house just after noon by a friend of the victims who was sleeping on the first floor after a late-night party at the home, he said.

One horrified neighbor saw a firefighter carry the baby out the house in his arms.

"We just kept pulling people out one after the other," Sullivan said. "It was a very gruesome scene to see those people come out. ... I've never seen a fire with this many fatalities."

Authorities said the man who called 911 went to bed after the party at around 3 a.m. and woke up at about 7 a.m., and nothing seemed amiss. He was awakened again several hours later when a section of the first-floor ceiling collapsed, Sullivan said.

The man, whom authorities didn't identify, tried to run up to the second floor but was turned away by intense smoke and heat. He was later treated for smoke inhalation, and his condition was not considered life threatening.

Sullivan said firefighters did not immediately find any smoke detectors in the home and the victims possibly never woke up. "Had there been working smoke alarms, as in any fire situation, I think the outcome would be different," he said.

The victims included 21-year-old Amanda Villeneuve and her daughter, Annabelle, who both lived at the house, owned by James Weeden, the warden at the state's maximum-security prison. Two others who died in the blaze were identified as 20-year-old Dan Janik of Woonsocket and 24-year-old Nicholas Jillson, the son of North Smithfield Fire Chief Joel Jillson. The name of the fifth person, a 20-year-old woman, was not released.

Firefighters initially identified Villeneuve as Weeden's daughter, but the man who escaped the blaze told witnesses that Villeneuve was Weeden's granddaughter. Fire officials were trying to establish the relationship between Weeden and Villeneuve. Weeden and his wife were away in Vermont at the time of the fire.

When she heard a stream of sirens coming down her street, neighbor Dianne Card, 59, went outside. She noticed firefighters pounding holes in the roof on the house next door, revealing thick clouds of smoke. The man who called 911 was standing on the edge of the property in his socks.

Card and another woman took the man inside their home, but he was too restless to stay. He went back outside and watched as firefighters removed his friends' bodies from the house. He called out the name of one victim, then said he felt ill.

"His knees started to buckle," Card said. "We sort of grabbed him, and we took ahold of each side of him and brought him into our home."

She saw a firefighter rush from the home carrying in his arms the body of the baby. On the other side of the block, resident Jackie Riccio, 68, saw firefighters place wet cloths over three victims, including one who only took up half the stretcher.

"I knew it was a child," she said. "I started to cry."

The house's windows were blackened from soot or broken later Saturday, but the tidy, yellow home with white trim was still standing, surrounded in front by neatly trimmed bushes.

State Fire Marshal Jack Chartier said the blaze likely started in a gap between the first and second floor, or on the surface of the second floor, and burned slowly.

"This may have been smoldering silently after these folks went to bed," Chartier said.

Authorities said the fire was not suspicious, but declined to release its cause. Investigators intend to return to the home Sunday morning.