NEW CASTLE, Pa. (AP) – An infant and his 5-year-old brother died Tuesday after a fire tore through their western Pennsylvania home, also burning another brother and their mother, authorities said.
Roman Whittier, 3 months, and Roman Whittier, 5, were pronounced dead at Jameson Hospital in New Castle, Lawrence County Coroner Russell Noga said. The cause of their deaths wasn’t immediately released, but both had been pulled unconscious after their home caught fire about 2:15 a.m. Tuesday, authorities said.
New Castle fire Chief Mark Panella said a police officer attempting to rescue residents was found inside the home after passing out from smoke inhalation. New Castle Officer Justin Warren was rescued then treated at a hospital and released.
The boys’ parents, grandmother, her companion, and two other children were also home but managed to escape.
The boys’ father, Cullen “CJ” Whittier, told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he believed the fire started from a candle in the second-floor room where his sons were sleeping.
“I lost two of my boys,” Whittier told the newspaper.
Whittier said the boys’ mother, Jocelyn Burchan, and another son, 6-year-old C.J., were treated for burns and released, while 2-year-old son Gabriel escaped uninjured.
Lisa Beshero, a neighbor who called police when she heard the commotion, is a substitute teacher who had 6-year-old Cullen in her class at school.
Beshero heard the boys’ mother running in the street yelling, “I can’t lose my children,” before dialing 911.
“There was so much screaming,” Beshero said. “I’m just sick – sick to my stomach.”
A state police fire marshal was investigating.
New Castle is about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
Woman accounted for after fire hits 3 Homewood homes
PITTSBURGH (AP) – Pittsburgh police say a woman thought to be missing when a fire ripped through three homes wasn’t at home at the time and is safe.
The woman in question, whose name wasn’t immediately released, lived in the Homewood residence where the fire started about 3:45 a.m. Tuesday.
Police spokeswoman Sonya Toler says now that the woman has been accounted for, there were no injuries to report.
Officials say the fire spread quickly from the woman’s home to two neighboring structures.
Residents of those homes escaped without incident.
The Salvation Army was present to support both the firefighters and the affected residents. The Red Cross assisted five individuals with temporary housing.
The cause of the fire remained under investigation.
DA seeks death penalty for man charged in fire that killed 6
PITTSBURGH (AP) – A man accused of starting a fire that killed six people should get the death penalty, a Pennsylvania prosecutor said, in part because four of the victims were young children and the intended target, the only survivor, had been a police informant.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. filed notice Tuesday that he’ll seek the death penalty against Ryan Williams, 25, of McKeesport.
Williams remains jailed on charges including six counts of criminal homicide and arson stemming from the early morning Oct. 18 fire at the McKeesport home of Keith Egenlauf, who prosecutors contend was the intended target. Williams waived his right to a preliminary hearing last month, meaning he’s awaiting trial or must resolve the charges through a plea agreement.
Prosecutors contend Williams had blamed Egenlauf for theft charges that put Williams in jail earlier last year before he entered Egenlauf’s unlocked home and set the fire. After a night of drinking, Williams allegedly took money from a wallet in an upstairs bedroom and food from the refrigerator before tossing a burning roll of toilet paper on a couch before leaving the home.
The fire killed Egenlauf’s father, Ronald Egenlauf Sr., 55; Keith Egenlauf’s 27-year-old wife, Hope Jordan; and her four children, ages 2 through 7. Keith Egenlauf suffered critical burns from which he’s still recovering.
In Pennsylvania, a prosecutor must convict a person of a capital crime – in this instance, first-degree murder – and then prove at least one “aggravating circumstance” existed in order to ask a jury to impose the death penalty, instead of the mandatory life prison term the crime otherwise carries.
Zappala cited seven aggravating circumstances that he’ll try to prove at trial, including the age of the young victims, Williams’ prior convictions and Egenlauf’s status as a police informant.
Defense attorney Richard Narvin said he doesn’t believe the death penalty is warranted, despite the multiple victims – including children – involved.
“I don’t see it being a death penalty case,” Narvin said. “I think the DA is equating the size of the tragedy involved with automatically making it a capital case.”
Williams has told witnesses he didn’t realize there were children in the home when the fire was set, according to a criminal complaint, though investigators have doubts about that because Williams allegedly moved through the home before setting the fire.