The mother of a young girl fatally burned and another fighting for her life after the van they were napping in caught fire outside a Fridley Walmart asked for prayers to get her family through these worst of times.
"Give your babies kisses. Hold them tight for me," Essie McKenzie said Thursday in a news conference at HCMC, where her 6-year-old daughter Ty'rah White died Tuesday night, while 9-year-old Taraji White remains in critical condition. "You never know the last time you get the chance to hear their voice and talk to them. That's all I ask. Tell them you love them."
McKenzie, of Coon Rapids, spoke with reporters Thursday, the same morning a man went before a judge on charges that his unattended hot stove started a fire in his van that spread to McKenzie's van where her children slept as she shopped.
Roberto Hipolito, who turned 71 on Friday, of Long Beach, Calif., appeared in Anoka County District Court on charges of second-degree manslaughter and negligent fire in connection with the blaze Tuesday morning outside the store in the 8400 block of University Avenue NE.
Hipolito remains jailed, with bail set at $100,000. Judge Dyanna Street also ordered him to surrender his passport. Hipolito is due back in court Sept. 5.
"Our hearts are with the family of these children and to the child who remains in critical condition," County Attorney Tony Palumbo said in a statement. "While we cannot undo the carelessness that led to this tragedy, we can pursue justice and demand accountability."
On Thursday, burn surgeon Dr. Fred Endorf said Ty'rah died from smoke inhalation and burns on more than 60% of her body, calling it "one of the worst cases I've ever seen."
Taraji's biggest challenge is smoke inhalation, with second-degree burns on 5% of her body, said Endorf, who noted that the older girl showed "slight improvement overnight."
"Just please, please, please keep us in your prayers because we need her. She's fighting," McKenzie said. "Taraji is fighting real hard. ... She still doesn't know what's going on."
The girls were alone in the van for 45 minutes to an hour as their mother shopped in the store, Fridley Police Lt. Jim Mork said.
While Mork said leaving children of that age alone in a vehicle is not against the law, the Sheriff's Office is referring the case to the county's Child Protective Services "because the children were left in the van for quite some time," said Sheriff's Lt. Daniel Douglas.
McKenzie's other child, 11-year-old son Terrell, was out of state at the time with his grandmother.
McKenzie's sister and the children's aunt, Alexis Mc-Kenzie, said the girls had been up since 4 a.m. the day of the fire and went along with their mother to drive Terrell and the children's grandmother to the airport for a trip to Arizona. On the way back, Essie McKenzie stopped at the Walmart 5 minutes from home. She left the children in the van to sleep.
"It could happen to anybody; it could have been anybody," the aunt said of the fire, fighting her emotions as she sat by her soft-spoken sister. "They wasn't babies in the car," she said, and said they could have gotten out of the car on their own. "They were asleep and they burned."
Essie McKenzie said her only thoughts now are on her children. "I can't think about the negative. ... Whatever anyone is doing and saying, I don't have enough energy for that. I wish I did, but I don't."
An online fundraising page has been started on behalf of McKenzie's family to help pay for medical and other expenses.
The charges say Hipolito admitted to authorities that he was using a stove near the van, which had North Carolina license plates, to cook that morning while parked outside the store, and then he placed the stove in the back of the van. He said he and his wife had slept in the van overnight in the parking lot.
A spokeswoman for Arkansas-based Walmart said Thursday that overnight parking is handled on a store-by-store basis at the discretion of each location's manager.
"Our store in Fridley does not allow overnight parking and has signs posted throughout the lot," said spokeswoman Tiffany Wilson.
There's nothing that Fridley Prosecutor David Brodie could find on the municipal books that makes parking for the night in a retail lot illegal.
"In looking at our code," Brodie said Thursday, "Fridley doesn't seem to restrict that type of parking."
Brodie said some cities make that practice illegal, but for the most part, "it's left to the individual merchants or private property owners" to decide what's allowed.
Video surveillance from moments before Tuesday's blaze showed Hipolito cooking on the stove as it sat on the pavement behind the van.
"After cooking, and without significant time to allow the stove to cool, [Hipolito] puts the stove in the rear of the vehicle," the criminal complaint read.
Hipolito told law enforcement that he tossed pillows and blankets in where the stove was and then drove the van to a closer parking spot, the charges continued.
Hipolito said he then went into the store, and the fire began within minutes.
As firefighters doused the flames, the charges read, McKenzie "ran out of the store screaming that her kids were in one of the vehicles."
Hipolito's wife fled from the vehicle unharmed. She tried to remove belongings, but the flames were too intense, the complaint read. A car on the other side of their van also sustained fire damage.